Laboratory buildings are often the graveyard of architects' good intentions, as stringent technical requirements leave little room for environmental and aesthetic concerns. Richard Meier & Partners' i.lab is an exception: the LEED Platinum–accredited research center near Milan provides flexible climate-controlled chemistry labs and material-testing facilities for cement company Italcementi. Its secondary role as a place for meetings and public events means it also demanded an appropriately expressive architecture.
The richness of that expression is exemplified by the projecting bladelike roof that shades the curtain-walled entrance hall at the tip of the building's V-shaped plan. The steel-trussed structure is clad with precast panels of white self-cleaning concrete also used for window mullions and louvers. It serves simultaneously as a demonstration of Italcementi's technical capabilities, a welcoming gesture, and a reference to the 150-year-old company's birthplace in neighboring Bergamo, Italy, to which it points like an arrow.
The structure also makes an elegant conclusion to the Jean Nouvel–designed Kilometro Rosso, a red metal wall placed alongside a busy highway to identify the fledgling science park within which the i.lab is located, amidst a landscape of farms and commercial sheds. The 33-foot-tall wall established a maximum height for the laboratory building—three of whose four stories are below ground level—but Meier otherwise relied on distant views and manipulated terrain to root the building.
To the south, a space between its wings has been partially excavated to create a third daylit story at basement level and access to mechanicals and parking below. Terraces overlook an extensive garden of hornbeam hedges, fruit trees, and endangered local fauna that tie the building specifically to the region.
The larger of the two wings, aligned with the highway, places offices above two floors of labs, while the smaller contains a coolly luxurious multipurpose auditorium and a cantilevered skylit boardroom that juts into the volume of the hall. The “public” and “private” halves of the building hinge on a double-height entrance foyer, within which a long ramp allows leisurely progress between floors. Circulation space in the work areas—where glass-walled labs and offices are pulled back from the roadside edge to create a broad route along the perimeter—is also designed to encourage chance encounters. “The idea of promenade is there in all of our projects,” explains Meier. “It creates a kind of interaction between people that is good for the company.” The space also forms an acoustic buffer, so that from desks and lab benches the busy highway registers only as a silent, somewhat hypnotic moving picture.
The building's defining quality is daylight, which spills in everywhere, flooding elevator shafts though roof windows and drawn into basement labs via sunken courtyards. Sunlight is also bounced by pools of water onto the sloping concrete soffit of the foyer. It lends variety and animation to the white interior. (“White is not a color,” remarks Meier. “It is a spectrum of possibilities depending on light.”) And the control of daylight, filtered by discreet shading devices to mitigate glare and heat gain, reveals the building's technical intelligence.
Italcementi's deputy director of innovation, Enrico Scalchi, admits to having been initially alarmed by “the white and the light, both of which are huge,” though adjustment came easily for him. Scalchi also adjusted to reduced privacy in individual work areas and the increased informal cooperation fostered by shared spaces. The lab, he says, embodies the emergent strands of Italcementi's “DNA”–innovation and sustainability, predictably enough, but also tradition, local roots, and “love of architecture.” It is a building whose apparent simplicity belies a delicate handling of both form and content.
Size: 248,000 square feet
Cost: $51.8 million
Completion date: April 2012
Richard Meier & Partners Architects LLP
475 Tenth Avenue
New York, NY 10018
212 967 6060
212 967 3207
Owner: Italcementi Group
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
MEP: Serving s.r.l
LEED: Viridian Energy & Environmental, LLC
AV: Sangio Sound snc
Construction Specifications: Aaron Pine
LEED Commissioning: Tekne Ingegneria
Pool: FM Studio
CAD system, project management, or other software used:
Precast concrete: Styl-Comp S.p.A.
Precast concrete curtain wall: Styl-Comp S.p.A (precast), Guardian (glass), MetalSer S.r.l.(fabricator)
Revolving Door: Boon Edam
Metal doors: Domoferm
Wood doors: Domoferm
Office Partitions doors: Gemino
Ventilated doors grilles: Orsogril
Roller Shades: Silent Gliss
Metal Ceilings: Pancaldi
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork: Poltrona Frau Contract
Floor and wall tile (cite where used): Ceramiche Signorelli (bathrooms, first basement)
Hardwood floor: Ceramiche Signorelli
Special interior finishes unique to this project:
Lab furniture and systems: Burdinola
Reception, Auditorium, Board Room Custom furniture: Poltrona Frau Contract
Auditorium fixed seating: Poltrona Frau Contract
Wood Panels: Poltrona Frau Contract