New formula for a research lab Biotechnology center's design mixes scientists with entrepreneurs

November 18, 1996|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Can a work of architecture help scientists find a cure for AIDS, or cancer, or the common cold? More to the point, will downtown Baltimore's new Medical Biotechnology Center be the place where it happens?

Perhaps it's putting too much of a burden on any one building to suggest it could play such an important role in medical research.

But walking through the $41.4 million palace of science that Maryland has created for AIDS researcher Dr. Robert Gallo and others, it's hard not to be swept up by the promise of it all.

The six-story Medical Biotechnology Center, which officially opens today at 725 W. Lombard St., was launched as part of a far-reaching effort by the University of Maryland to help make the state a center for biotechnology and other life sciences.

But it has become much more. The architects have done for research labs what Oriole Park did for baseball stadiums: break the cookie-cutter mold and show that there is a better way.

In the past, universities built research labs for teaching purposes, with different departments literally walled off from each other. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies built their own labs. The two didn't mingle.

The architects have changed all that, bringing university scientists together with private entrepreneurs who can develop products from their research.

The achievement of the designers -- Davis, Brody & Associates of New York with BWJ Inc. of Baltimore -- is all the more remarkable considering that they created this unusual setting by recycling a 1914 shoe factory.

Outside, they gave the once-hulking building a contemporary look that signals its new use. Inside, they created spaces that are sunlit, airy -- positively convivial.

The result -- part sophisticated laboratory, part flashy corporate center -- is one of the most impressive buildings to be constructed on the Baltimore campus since the university decided to turn it into a center for the life sciences.

A new approach

Maryland's 210,000-square-foot facility is fundamentally different from the typical university laboratory because the goals are different, explained Dr. Edmund Tramont, the center's director.

"My mission is not teaching," he said. "My mission is to be a catalyst for economic development. My goal is to create a milieu, a culture, a place that will be comfortable for biotechnology."

As a result, the center had to be more like a pharmaceutical company than a classroom, Tramont said. "This is a step between the old traditional academic way and a company," he said. Architecturally, "it was a new concept."

Adding to the challenge was the building chosen for the center, the former Hutzler Bros. warehouse on Lombard Street. Constructed in 1914 and expanded in 1966, its original tenant was the Morton Samuels Shoe Co., which made Newark brand shoes. The state bought it in 1991.

Davis, Brody and BWJ decided they could work with the basic concrete frame of the building, a decision that saved the state about $5 million. But they decided that the exterior skin was inconsistent with the proposed use or the forward-looking image the university wanted to project.

So the architects made two bold design moves that shaped the rest of the project:

On the exterior, they reclad the building with a new brick skin that unified the 1914 and 1966 halves of the warehouse and better reflected the building's abrupt change in use.

On the interior, they carved out much of the building to create a light-filled atrium. Then they arranged labs and offices around the perimeter, like hotel suites off a central lobby.

A new image

The new brick skin gave the building a distinctive base, middle and top. Rectangular windows replaced the strip windows of the modern annex, and the entrance was relocated to a side courtyard.

The most dramatic exterior change came at the top of the warehouse -- a large mechanical penthouse capped by a sloping roof. A tubular steel cornice crowns the building like a high-tech tiara, and six white "smokestacks" recall the factories active when the city was known more for banana boats than biotechnology. But the only "smoke" vented by these stacks is the exhaust from the labs below -- a telling symbol of how the city has evolved.

The result is a pumped-up building that fits well with its traditional neighbors yet stands out enough to announce its new mission.

On the interior, the atrium unifies the diverse research areas the way the new skin unifies the previously fragmented exterior.

A feature often seen in hotels and office buildings but not so frequently in research centers, it provides an important visual link among the top four floors of the six-story building -- spaces where most of the researchers work day-to-day.

The lower two floors are reserved for more specialized areas that have not yet opened, including an animal research lab on the second floor and an outpatient clinic at street level.

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