- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by John Gollings
- Architect Denton Corker Marshall, SKM-S2F
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This interview first appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #124: Architecture and the Body.
The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI), located in Melbourne, is Australia’s oldest medical research facility. Founded in 1915, it has gone through a number of incarnations. Notably, in the late 20th century WEHI researchers made a monumental breakthrough, discovering colony-stimulating factors (CSFs) that have helped millions of cancer sufferers around the world, and in the past decade the institute has cemented its reputation as a world leader in advanced biotechnological research. In 2005, however, the institute felt the original building, designed by Daryl Jackson and completed in 1985, had reached critical mass and could no longer operate at optimum capacity.
For Denton Corker Marshall (DCM) and laboratory architects SKM-S2F, then, the challenge was to assert WEHI’s standing in the high-powered medical hub in which it sits, while also making a design statement about the institute’s global standing and its research philosophy. After all, WEHI is located on the northern fringe of the Melbourne CBD in the two-square-kilometre Parkville precinct, among the world’s most concentrated medical science precincts, which also includes the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories and the Royal Children’s Hospital.
The institute calculated that the existing floor area would need to be doubled to meet future requirements, and the result is DCM’s new seven-storey wing, although it was not easy for the practice to realise this ambition. First up, there was a major restriction in that the site was extremely tight and narrow and could only be extended westwards to the rear of the existing building. The challenge, then, was to sensitively match the Jackson design, which hails from a unique architectural era, while stamping a fresh presence on the tricky site. Says Wojciech Pluta, DCM’s lead designer on the project, the Jackson building features an external block grille, leaving no other option but to match it floor to floor. DCM’s response: a new building of virtually the same scale, width and length, and with the same amount of levels, linked to the Jackson building at each.
The original building is a colourful example of Jackson’s signature style, wrapped in external panels with cream and red highlights and boasting circular, off-white concrete columns and terracotta-hued lattice sunscreens. Curved, pale-blue service shafts and external stair shafts completed this integrated approach. DCM absorbed the building into the new extension by wrapping it in an external cladding, a gliding, streamlined skin unifying the two structures into a legible whole. To some extent, the casual observer can still read the external features of the Jackson building, even as they have been subsumed. The result is a public face of some grandeur, with no sense of DCM making a mark at the expense of what came before, but instead responding perceptively to the architectonics, and siting, of the original building.
For SKM-S2F, the challenge was to rethink the laboratory design, where the tradition is towards isolation from the pure research areas. In the new building, the laboratories are filled with natural light and daubed in a calm, composed green-and-white colour scheme. In contradistinction to the ‘claustrophobic’ model, they are not sectioned off but are zoned within large glass walls alongside two tiers of desks, which are set aside for postgraduate research students. The idea with this transparent boundary is to broadcast the excitement of the laboratories back to the next generation of researchers in a kind of ‘living theatre’ of research science.
The new building is at once spacious and collegial, mirrored by the flow of its internal space. The central lifts situated between the old and new buildings are glass-walled and look out to a seven-storey void. From the lift, as it passes each level, the gaze is directed through glass doors and into the new building’s corridors, which demarcate the lab fitout. This idea of porous research boundaries – and, metaphorically, free exchange of ideas and productivity – is fully realised in the practical details, notably the new building’s stairwells, where breakout space has been vertically integrated at each floor level. The idea is that as a scientist or researcher walks up or down the stairs and bumps into a colleague, engaging in the usual curiosity about each other’s work, they can retire to this ‘incidental research space’ to continue the discussion, obviating the need to make way for passersby and therefore risk breaking the flow of their dialogue. This may seem a minor detail within the scope of a $100 million refurbishment, but it is in fact critical, seen by the institute as essential in conveying WEHI’s time-honoured culture of open exchange.
For DCM co-founder Barrie Marshall, the new building aims to ‘capture a sense of drama and innovation’, and this is evident with the facade, which features punched-metal elements that from a distance look like Morse code, but are in fact an abstract representation of DNA, a stylised scientific ‘branding’ that cloaks the architecture in a recognisable visual identity. This cool theatricality transmits directly to the public with the inclusion of an animation wall along the long walkway just before the main entrance to the new building, accessible to staff and signed-in visitors. The wall displays the work of animator, Drew Berry, who is based at WEHI, on a massive screen designed in association with Berry himself.
Berry creates biomedical visualisations for WEHI, modelling, for example, the properties and behaviour of DNA strands and exhibiting them to acclaim at MOMA and the Centre Pompidou. His goal is to bring before the public a hidden world hitherto seen only at a magnification of x10,000,000, to demystify bodily processes and the scientific techniques used to explore them.
For WEHI, that philosophy also holds true. Embedded within the walkway, Berry’s animations, sinewy and luminescent, are a brilliant touch, and underwriting their display is the mission informing WEHI’s new architectural stance: to dissolve the boundaries between inside and outside, engaging the public in important research with far-reaching implications for everyone.