Friday, May 04, 2007

Biotech Buildings

I had the opportunity today to attend an event at the Genzyme Center and boy is that building a stunner. A soaring atrium contains mobiles which cast rainbows all over the space. There are watercourses and plantings at ground level, glass elevators -- more of a hotel lobby than an office building.

Novartis' Cambridge facility also has a nice atrium, though a bit more staid. Cell Signalling Technologies' lobby on the North Shore resembles a small jungle.

Biotech buildings in Cambridge are a mix. Some renovated older buildings are quite attractive, and some really are pretty plain. New buildings are a mix too. Space is precious, so those atria really shout 'we can afford it!'. Millennium's first custom building (75 Sidney) had a small atrium with a spiral stair (alas, not a double spiral!), but the later buildings used decorative ornamentation (granite in the bathrooms!) and non-rectangular walls in place of unusable air space.

Much as old banks built solid buildings with serious marble & columns to emphasize their solidity & seriousness, so too does a flashy building speak of a company's confidence in its future. Of course, such confidence is all too often misplaced. As a graduate student I watched Hybridon's headquarters emerge from a rehabbed tire warehouse, but then at Millennium I got to see the gorgeous inside -- because Hybridon was subletting the space to us. One company going up, another going down. Later, Millennium started shedding space and discovered that two story atria with a staircase looks nice, but doesn't make subletting the building a floor at a time practical without some changes.

It is also useful to be skeptical of some of the touted benefits of architecture. I am a fan of good architecture, but what looks good doesn't always work well. I love seeing Frank Lloyd Wright houses, but living in one is reputed to require some getting used to. All glass conference room walls may emphasize openess & light, but sometimes you don't really want to be a goldfish. MIT's Stata center is very funky, but just try finding an office in there (and worse, the interior is dead for at least one major cellphone carrier, meaning you can't be guided in).

In the end, some is just a matter of taste. I actually had the privilege of living in a famous bit of architecture for a semester, a Gropius-designed dorm at Harvard. I loved it; most students hated the small rooms. Plus, noise propagated dreadfully (our late night card games were often shut down) and it really didn't work well as a co-ed dorm - only one bathroom per floor, and those were definitely not suitable for unisex use. Worse, you had to go through the stairwell to get to another floor -- and the stairwell was keyed. Don't forget your key at night, or you get locked in a fishbowl in your PJs!

Do architectural gems translate to a happier, more productive workforce? Or are you stuck with a museum piece which resists change? I don't have a crystal ball -- though perhaps you can find a conference room which looks like one.


Anonymous said...

I vote for the new Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre. A large open atrium with asymmetrical skywalks criss-crossing it.


Anonymous said...

I had the chance to view the Genzyme building, form outside, one late afternoon in February. The sun was setting and it created a lovely refection. Wish I had the chance to go inside the building.