The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre by architect Ian Ritchie Architects and engineer Arup opened earlier this year in London’s west end. The building delivers a state-of-the-art laboratory for experimental and theoretical neuroscience research at University College London, and a new home for the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit (GCNU). The building replaces an existing UCL research centre from 1959.
Ian Ritchie Architects were appointed as architects and design team leaders in 2009 following an open international competition. The new facility has been developed through the vision and partnership of the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.
John O’Keefe, the Director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, said
“the design has departed considerably from the normal standard template primarily in response to the need to provide laboratories suitable for experiments employing state-of-the-art neuroscientific techniques on behaviour and theoretical computation. The architects have designed the building from the laboratory outwards. To top it all, Ian has clothed the building in a beautiful white glass façade whose undulations symbolically reflect the nature of the science to be carried out within.”
The external appearance of the building is enigmatic, with unconventional light reflections and a generous public colonnade animated with a thousand suspended ‘pixels’ featuring printed images of Bach’s Musical Offering, and UCL Nobel Laureates. The south wall is partially covered with suspended white ‘pixels’ that move with the local wind currents. The entire building glows at night, the translucent insulated cast glass avoiding the grid of light fittings that dominate the night view of most commercial buildings in the city.
The search for the best material for the building envelope was born from a desire that the main street façade echo the gracious Georgian elevations of the adjacent squares. Clad in Portland stone or render, the Georgian buildings reconcile verticality and horizontality whilst being of a domestic scale.
In response, to develop the urban façade, Ian Ritchie Architects focused on cast glass. The team embarked on intense development with German cast glass manufacturers Linit/Glasfabrik Lamberts. Research into the processing and treatment of cast glass resulted in the emergence of a modified and refined version of white cast glass previously used at a smaller scale on some of their other projects. This unique material could then be assembled as a unitised system of structural glass, acting as a single façade element and as an insulated translucent twin wall. This system is able to support the insertion of windows without any additional structure other than the cast glass itself.
One of the design strategies to emerge was based on meeting and exceeding energy and CO2 targets. The high thermal performance of the glass assembly means the building does not require any perimeter heating. Within, and flush with the façade, are more than one hundred opening triple-glazed windows which are strategically placed into the curved geometry of the north elevation. Each window has its own motorised cast glass louvre which can be adjusted to suit the occupier’s requirements.
The architects used the metaphor of an ‘ice shelf’ to convey the idea of a less-reflective translucent surface with a texture that would absorb, reflect and refract daylight and transfer shadow and light changes within the building onto the façade, making it visible from the street.
The whiteness of its mass refers to an iceberg, and it is melting at the corners. As the wavy facade turns the corner of the building, the glass becomes more immaterial, like water flowing
– a metaphor for climate change – while the south side of the building’s surface is fractured, as would an ice flow, and moves in response to the wind.
The translucent envelope also offers privacy with none of the overlooking issues associated with a central London location.
There are five ‘vitrines’ in the colonnade which explain some visual phenomena and the way the brain can confuse us: distortion, deception, inversion, illusion and perception. They also serve to give an indication of the building’s purpose to the public.
The neurological subject of the research that will be carried out within the building also contributed to the wavy façade, as Ian Ritchie explains:
“Having met neuroscientists all over the world I became acutely aware of their pan-disciplinary skills – physics, biology, electronics, chemistry, electro-mechanical engineering. The wavy façade suggests that the experimentalists have a significant brain ‘wavelength’, while the theoretical computational neuroscientists are on another wavelength altogether – hence the increase in frequency where they are housed over three floors in the middle. Inside, did I ‘know’ if the creative, idiosyncratic neuroscientists would like curvy interior walls? I guessed they would.”
The interior is wrapped with a unique structural insulated white cast glass wall – spanning 4.2m floor to floor. The light transmission through this wall provides a wonderful quality of diffused ‘white’ natural illumination to the interior and removes all glare for the well-being and comfort of the building users, particularly in relation to computer screens. As well as being a clean surface, the entire interior cast glass surface also becomes a ‘whiteboard’ for the scientists.
Throughout the building, soffits are painted a spectral wavelength blue of 480 nanometres. Research has shown that this wavelength, which is seen in the morning sky, makes us more alert. Where it was impossible to paint the soffits, concealed blue lighting surrounds the edges of the ceiling panels.