Vancouver, British Columbia
Iconic designs don't always make good places. Photogenic buildings that assert themselves as individual landmarks may ignore their context and fail to enhance the public realm. Yet the University of British Columbia (UBC) Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Centre for Drug Research and Development, a new 275,870-square-foot research, teaching, and office facility, succeeds on both individual and community levels. Designed by Saucier + Perrotte Architectes (S+P) of Montreal with Hughes Condon Marler Architects (HCMA) of Vancouver, it's already famous for the Cubist collage of glass volumes that animates its west facade. The entire structure, intended to promote creativity and collaboration among its 790 students and 55 faculty members, provides UBC with a state-of-the-art building worthy of its international reputation. And it transforms a nondescript corner of the campus into a prominent gateway.
UBC occupies 1,005 acres eight miles west of downtown Vancouver and serves almost 50,000 students. Its architecture ranges from Collegiate Gothic to an International Style of concrete, brick, and glass. The campus enjoys a natural setting of breathtaking beauty on a wooded promontory overlooking the Strait of Georgia'but not on its lackluster southeast edge, where the pharmacy school occupies a 2-acre site. Yet the building more than fulfills new campus guidelines intended to increase density, strengthen a sense of place, and promote design quality. Its powerful rectangular form, cantilevered over a recessed ground floor, anchors a busy intersection and a well-traveled pedestrian path. It also frames outdoor space and displays its academic activities in a highly transparent, signature work, whose taut glass skin'in six shades from clear to black'provides a suave counterpoint to a banal parking garage next door and the trio of red-brick masses across the road that house the life-sciences department.
Saucier + Perrotte and HCMA articulated the building's program by looking to nature. 'The idea of a root system growing over time into a tree with an extensive network of branches serves as an allegory for the development of modern medicine,' says S+P design principal Gilles Saucier. 'The image of two trees and their foliage, fused and intertwined, provided the conceptual underpinning of the building.'
In trying to link the metaphor of trees to a sleek glass enclosure, Saucier urges you to 'think of the image of two trees with overlapping canopies. Then visualize this image pixelated, transforming the organic shape of the foliage into a more Cartesian geometry.' (You have to squint a bit, but it works.)
The pixelated geometry reaches its climax on the iconic west facade, where the planar glass curtain wall that clads the other facades explodes into a sculpture of cantilevered cubes. This tectonic tour de force overlooks a plaza whose abstract design extends the building's ground plane into the landscape with concrete and wood benches meant to evoke tree roots. Above, the glazed cubes contain seminar rooms, some clad in mirrored glass, which will reflect foliage at the opposite end of the plaza once the trees have grown tall enough.
The tree analogy serves as a placemaking exercise inside as well, where a monumental public space on the ground floor makes the organic parti palpable. There, within the pharmaceutical center's sleek glass enclosure, the metaphorical tree roots are tilted planes of rough, board-formed concrete, resawn cedar planks, and black glass, which dramatically heave up from a polished concrete floor. The cedar planks extend upward to cover skewed ceiling planes and parapets edging two obliquely shaped atriums. Concrete elevator cores are painted black, as are steel stairs leading to a mezzanine surrounded by a black glass railing. Recessed theater entrances, painted bright yellow, provide relief from the otherwise somber palette.
The amorphous space around the theaters is a lively if dimly lit student commons with a caf' and an exhibition on the history of medicines, elegantly installed in vitrines and wall panels. With entrances on all four sides and an envelope of clear glass, this dynamic and densely textured public space can be easily seen by passing pedestrians.
High above, the 'tree trunks' grow into two light wells that naturally illuminate the interior. Cubic white 'treehouses' of fritted glass and crisply detailed wall panels contain laboratories for pharmaceutical research and development. Offices and meeting rooms are placed at the perimeter, like branches and foliage. 'The difficulty of this project,' Saucier notes wryly, 'was knowing when to stop referring to the transformation of trees, because, of course, in the end it's about the spaces.' Luminous circulation paths wrap around the skylit atriums in an arrangement that provides, according to HCMA managing principal Roger Hughes, 'spaces for chance encounters and cross-pollination of ideas.'
Metaphors don't always yield good architecture, but Saucier's building-as-trees is surprisingly and subtly successful. Its elegant glass volume gives the site a much-needed dose of urbanity, enlivening the pedestrian paths and open space that surround it while showcasing its functions in the highly articulated interior. If the finishes used on the ground floor to elaborate the metaphor create a rather lugubrious effect, apparently it hasn't dampened the spirits of the students and faculty. 'I love it,' says one undergraduate. 'It's our building.' Proof of their enthusiasm is the student-performed lip-dub video 'It's Always a Good Time''a bouncy, dance-along tour of the new UBC building that anyone can check out on YouTube.
James Gauer is an architect based in Victoria, B. C., and the author of The New American Dream: Living Well in Small Homes.
Completion Date: September 2012
Size: 275,870 square feet
Total construction cost: $90.5 million
Hughes Condon Marler Architects (HCMA)
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Managing principals: André Perrotte (S+P), Roger Hughes (HCMA)
Project architect: Bill Uhrich (HCMA) / Craig Lane (HCMA)
Design coordinator: David Moreaux (S+P)
Design and Construction team:
Architect of record: Saucier + Perrotte architectes / Hughes Condon Marler Architects
Electrical: Applied Engineering Solutions (AES)
Signage, Wayfinding and exhibition design: Smartdesign Group with NGX interactive
Lab Design: Stantec
CAD system, project management, or other software used:
Metal/glass curtain wall:
Ground Level curtain wall: Glasstech
Metal & wood doors:
Fire-control doors, security grilles:
Upswinging doors, other:
Perforated metal panels: Unalloy
Installer: Power Drywall Ltd
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
Paints and stains:
Epoxy coatings: Duochem
Floor and wall tile:
Data centre access flooring: ASM Modular Systems Inc.
Special interior finishes unique to this project:
Epoxy flooring: BASF Ucrete
Interior fridge panels: Kingspan
Seminar/Conference chairs: Herman Miller
Lecture hall fixed tables: Feature Millwork Inc.
Task lighting: by owner
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability: