Gavin Henderson

Gavin HendersonGavin Henderson

Stanton Williams Architects

We approached this project expecting many technical challenges – which of course there were – and one of the successes of the building is the way in which the technical…

What was the most difficult issue about working within this building type or the most unexpected challenge that may have influenced new thought in your project?

We approached this project expecting many technical challenges – which of course there were – and one of the successes of the building is the way in which the technical installations, which often dominate Laboratory buildings, have been fully integrated within the very high quality working environment. The real issues, however, were human and social rather than technical. The challenge of the project lay in understanding the working culture of the scientists and, in collaboration with them, re-thinking the priorities for laboratory design and developing a building that would support creative working and thinking. The resulting scheme is organised around a continuous route which functions as a space for reflection and debate and is intended to promote encounters and interaction between the scientists working in the building, and between them and the landscape setting.

Did this project expand or evolve your role as an architect in any way? In general, do you feel that the role of the architect is changing on current projects?

The Client, the University of Cambridge, and the Funder, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, maintained a commitment throughout to quality and functional performance at a very detailed level. This commitment led to the extension of our commission to include the design of bespoke fittings and furniture to meet the project requirements. The resulting fully coordinated architecture and fit-out is an ideal we always aspire to but rarely have the opportunity to achieve.

We always aim to foster a collaborative approach across the Project Team, but this project, in particular, was distinguished by an especially strong collaborative ethos shared by Client, consultants and contractors. Undoubtedly, this approach underpinned the success of the project. The construction of a complex, high quality building through a Design, Develop and Construct Contract (with designers novated to the contractor), rather than more traditional procurement, illustrates the changing role of the architect: successful collaboration with contractors is increasingly the key to fully realizing the design through the construction phase.

How is your building possible today in a way that it may not have been before and how have trends in technology and society inspired new thought and solutions?

Our early discussions with the Client focused on trends in scientific research and their impact on laboratory buildings. What became clear was the understanding that “nothing is certain except change”: this understanding has informed thinking and solutions throughout the design, resulting in a building which balances a sense of permanence appropriate to the long-term scientific vision with a high level of adaptability to meet the unknown requirements of future research.

The building itself, like many of our projects, has a deceptive simplicity! The expressed in-situ concrete frame appears on the façade as two simple slab edges but supports deep cantilevers that are integral to the concept of relating the interior spaces to the landscape setting. Calculating these complex structures would not have been possible without contemporary techniques for computer modeling, with the construction of a 3D Finite Element Model by the engineers, using analysis usually associated with more obviously complex geometries.

In the context of this project, how is your office and design process being influenced by current trends in academic curricula and incoming young architects? In turn, how are current projects and processes guiding the ongoing reformulation and development of academic curricula?

Our design process is one of constant collaboration with staff through dialogue and debate – a process refreshed and energized by incoming young architects. When architects join our office we look for designers who bring intellectual engagement, curiosity and open-minded questioning rather than those who reflect specific trends. The approach of the different architecture schools is highly diverse but we value the renewed interest of some schools in the physical and material qualities of architecture, the ability to draw and to understand space through physical models. These are qualities that are important to our own work and, we believe, remain fundamental to the act of making architecture. We are ourselves engaged in teaching, lecturing and examining within the architecture schools and value the two-way learning process between practice and academia.

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