Bio 21 Power

Charisma; Divinely conferred power or talent; capacity to inspire followers with devotion and enthusiam. Concise Oxford Dictionary

In theory, buildings don’t have charisma. This lofty state is generally reserved for television stars, sports celebrities, actors, religious deities and, if you believe it, some politicians. In the ‘ooh’ and ‘aaah’ stakes, the closest architecture comes to this revered station is usually in the simplistic terms of world’s tallest - Taipei 101 Tower, most photogenic - Sydney Opera House or most sensual - Bilbao’s Guggenheim. Beyond this, architecture of the public consciousness falls away faster than the Continental shelf. For most people, the photographed landmark is charisma’s closest cousin.

Beneath the radar of celebrity buildings, there exists a whole layer of private and institutional projects rarely experienced by the general community. Discovery and access to these properties can be as difficult as a beach truffle hunt or jelly wrestling. Which brings us to a building for bio medical research in Melbourne’s academic precinct of Parkville. Bio 21 is home of exceptional science now seductively packaged in some truly clever architecture. Clever if for no other reason than it is the new public face for boffins requiring a greater entrepreneurial edge.

Designed for a project consortium of the University of Melbourne, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and Royal Melbourne Hospital, the project provides a striking platform for some remarkable science. Subjects of research and development include cryo-electron microscopy, gas chromatography, molecular genetics and nuclear magnetic resonance.

While Bio21sounds vaguely like a washing detergent, its real brilliance is the cluster of scientific minds that occupy a pre-eminent research facility. Providing traction for this IQ required some special work by DesignInc. and the results are imaginative and liberating. Housed in a gossamer of glass and steel, the facility warps and weaves between transparency and translucency. A street elevation of rhythmic, projecting glass panels as sun visors hints at the aesthetic and environmental work that makes it so idiosyncratic yet finely tuned.

Numerous signature elements are stitched into its fabric. DesignInc.’s Christon Smith, a 36 year old architect with extensive UK training has helped introduce a thoroughly cohesive and convincing modernity. The British design school distinguished by luminaries such as Foster, Rogers and Grimshaw celebrate assembly. The diagram at Bio 21 is of necessity rigorously ordered and efficient, yet in general circulation zones the feeling is of a relaxed informality with light scrimming fabrics, timber and ply providing an organic contrast to the gleaming metal surfaces.

Entry to Bio21 doesn’t disappoint. Atria are often areas of dread, but this one is an object lesson in environmental intelligence. Light punches in and ricochets reaching deep into the ground floor and offices either side. Rarely do atria feel this connected to the body of the building. This one was purpose designed rather than treated as the gratuitous space left over that no-one quite knew how to fill. No less handsome are the gleaming stainless steel bathroom pods that branch dramatically inside and out from the filigree of columns and truss-work thereby reinforcing the skeleton and grain of construction.

The result is alive. So much so that the feeling is distinctly non-laboratory and non-corporate. A restrained material palette of expressed steel columns, gantries, staircase, polished concrete, timber ply and extensive glazing contributes an earthy, grounded elegance. Daylight levels are such that supplementary artificial lighting is used sparingly, if at all.

Laboratory scientists will often never see each other - even working on the same floor or a floor above or below. All that is now a thing of the past because there is no doubt some of best collaborative science will occur away from the work benches. Scientists accustomed to fluorescent lit cubicles will experience a graphic cultural shift and opportunity for alliances here.

‘Their vision is true,’ Smith says of his client. ‘It reflects the creativity that’s going on with their research. They have bought together so many different components. Rather than treating them as competing, they wanted to draw together the different strands of genetics, chemistry and bio-chemistry.’

A central lift core and staircase symbolise the connection that branches throughout. Glass lift shaft and lift provide a pared, transparent trunk from which sprout four curved platforms that project saucer-like into the void. Tables and chairs on each level provide convenient roosting points for staff on lunch and office breaks. These platforms are strategically placed between floor levels to encourage scientific encounters. Scientists accustomed to their own company suddenly find themselves part of a wider, more vibrant scientific community.

Everything revolves around the atrium. Offices, recreational spaces and even laboratories have highly effective sight lines throughout a horizontal slice of building. Smith says there was some initial resistance to the idea of atria as unfulfilled space, but the objection was overcome with the presentation of a strong horizontal circulation pattern.

The project really works from the inside out rather than the more common outside in where the exterior design and finish collapses towards the middle away from public view. The 500 plus research and administrative staff work in an energy efficient environment of 22,000 sq.m. that is every bit as practical as it is sculptural. The west elevation comprises a full-height five level glazed wall braced by walkways. So efficient is the natural venting of the atrium that even in summer air-conditioning is not required.

High visibility is celebrated throughout and Smith says the rationale extends beyond simply making workplaces that are better and more stimulating. ‘When you have a visiting international delegation with the potential to spend millions of dollars you can’t underestimate the importance of a place like this. The moment they arrive the function of the place is on display. We use a huge glass wall for instance to open up nuclear magnetic resonance area in the basement as a vibration free environment. It’s a brilliant advertisement and we put that on show to visitors.

‘Whether is residential or commercial, you have to deal with living,’ says Smith. ‘Around that you can build an architecture. If there is an architecture specific to science we say it’s about environmental issues. The research and creativity that is being carried on is represented in the architecture here.’

For so long the boffin and nerd, bio-science suddenly has headquarters truly befitting the remarkable technology and set of skills at its disposal. Many buildings are given an aesthetic and functional by-pass, but every now and then one makes it through the mincer. Bio21does and the result has all the pizzazz, if not to say charisma, to match its formidable IQ.

Peter Hyatt Copyright 2006


Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.