Professor Michael Fourman, head of E-Science at The Informatics Forum, claims he works in the best building in Scotland. Few would argue, including the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, which last year gave the Potterrow Building the Andrew Doolan ‘Best Building in Scotland’ award. With its transparent atrium, internal spiral staircases and roof terraces (where departmental barbecues are a frequent occurrence) overlooking Arthur’s Seat, Potterrow is Edinburgh University’s latest asset and the first phase of a major new masterplan. The Informatics Forum, which forms part of the new development, has been designed to stimulate cutting-edge scientific research – in this case, into informatics (artificial intelligence and robotics).Considering the university’s standing as one of the world’s most advanced research organisations at the forefront of the virtual community, Potterrow is very much married to its physical surroundings. As Rab Bennett, director of architects Bennetts Associates, explains, this sense of place was important from the outset: “We were always keen to retain the area’s historic urban grain.”The Informatics Forum has been built where a disused car park used to be, on a key pedestrian route to the city centre. The building is spread across two sites, with a public square in the middle designed as a diagonal through-route to bring people through the square and connect the building with Edinburgh’s centre. “Little, informal pedestrian routes are a part of this area of Edinburgh and we wanted the ground floor of the building to really give something back to the street,” project director John Miller explains. As well as a café and forum, commissioned artists will be generating work for a ground-floor gallery space to communicate what goes on in the building.While the researchers overwhelmingly work from cellular labs and offices, animated corridors around the building make the journey around the quadrangle as interesting and interactive as possible. Group networking spaces littered with brightly coloured cushions and coffee points are visible from every floor. “It sounds like rhetoric, but in an environment like this, bringing people together is how the next big ideas happen,” Fourman explains. There are close to 60 different nationalities, and between 500 and 600 researchers working in the building, from a range of backgrounds including chemistry, geography, art, medicine, maths and IT.The department wanted a space where everyone would congregate in smaller groups, both formally and informally, and wanted to aid this process through architecture. “We have been researching these ideas about office buildings for years, so this was music to our ears,” says Fourman.The ‘wormhole’ staircases, hung from the edge of the floorplates, are designed to make the floors less isolated from one another. Fourman produced a mathematical diagram of how limiting it is to only aggregate people horizontally, and how many more places people encounter one other if you introduce an easy vertical dimension. “It has changed the way the building works – you get used to nipping between floors,” Fourman explains. “The places without them feel less connected.” John Miller thinks that Fourman’s equation “should be fundamental to educational and health buildings. With increasingly fancy ways of communicating at a distance, architects have increasingly been asking the question: ‘Do we need buildings at all?’ I think this building shows you need both.”A post-occupancy survey by an architectural psychologist, using RIFD tags voluntarily worn by staff, should throw up interesting results about how the building is being used, and how the design has worked.“The Holy Grail for architecture is the scientific relationship between good design, improved productivity and occupant wellbeing,” explains Miller. “This is an important project for office and educational building design.”The informatics building was first to get an Excellent BREEAM rating in Scotland, and it also achieved this rating for its construction – despite it not being part of the guidelines when the building was designed.The building incorporates thermal mass, mixed ventilation and composite heat and power. “The university’s specialist environmental coordinator had the foresight to insist on common-sense, centralised building measures,” says Miller. “This will ensure it performs well, long after we have handed it over.”For the exterior, Bennetts Associates was faced with the challenge of finding a facade to fulfil civic demand: as well as being part of a historic university, the building sits in the most historic part of Edinburgh, just on the edge of a world heritage site.“Most of Edinburgh is built from stone from a quarry in West Edinburgh that ran out years ago, although there are two or three creamy sandstones that are relevant to new buildings in Edinburgh,” Miller explains.As a result, the natural stone for the facade came from Germany and was pre-cast in Belgium – one of only three places with the facilities to create such large-scale pieces. In a comparatively economic route, the whole facade was shipped to Leith, and transported to Edinburgh, where it was erected in one whole piece, “without even need for scaffolding,” as Miller explains.Phase two will see another department built, facing onto the courtyard, which will be covered in polished white cast stone, and planted with silver birch trees. “It won’t be one of those stuffy educational institutions with a great placard on the wall,” Miller says.In fact there is nothing stuffy about this research institute. Science and maths are the lifeblood of the informatics school, Miller explains, and for ten years they have been researching intelligent buildings, the kind that greet you as you walk in the door, and tell you who is in and out of the building. “The technology is all there, and it’s the intention of the department that with future funding it’s all unrolled in this building.”
Pullpo is a production centre, design agency and photography studio with offices in Argentina and Chile, designing ads for the likes of Pepe and Lee jeans, and an umbrella company to sites such as cooltrends.com, a fashion advertising site in Spanish. The starting point for its new Chile office was the abandoned facilities of a salt factory, in the western sector of Santiago. This cavernous industrial site was converted by architect Hania Stambuk into a moody and atmospheric workspace from which the agency could operate, and the project went on to win last year’s Bienal de Arquitectura prize.Because Pullpo is a mixed agency, the space had to be designed to accommodate a number of purposes, and the finished project includes offices, conference rooms, photographic studios, service and storage areas, a cafeteria, restrooms, and incorporated parking.Pullpo occupies all of the factory, although not all areas received as much architectural intervention – “they were adapted and restored as warehouses, lavatories etc,” says Stambuk.The project was kept low cost and effective, Stambuk goes on to explain, through architectural strategies that involved harnessing the new architecture to the perimeter wall of the factory shed.A number of interrelated units are arranged to host the agency’s activities, which can range from photographing fashion to wild animals and vehicles. These units are structurally joined by braided steel cables anchored on to the existing factory trusses.“This system allowed the maximum structural capacity within the host building,” Stambuk explains. It creates an interesting juxtaposition, and allows both the old and new to co-exist alongside one another. Each of the ‘cells’ within the larger building space was conceived of as a “small citadel” by Stambuk. In each cell, different functions in the creative process are carried out, creating a linear “assembly line of ideas,” she explains.The units allow services such as light, temperature and ventilation to be localised. The controlled atmosphere within the separate units ensures a comfortable work environment within the greater pre-existing container structure, which would be difficult to regulate as a whole.“The site had to be a large structure to contain the different demands and situations of an advertising agency,” says Stambuk. “Due to its size the factory was perfect for the development of this type of programme. “I don’t necessarily prefer to work with converted spaces; this was a challenge that came up and I approached it with the same professionalism as any other brief. However, it brought everything to the project. This is seen in the way the structure of the new building hangs from the structure of the old.”Stambuk explains that the concept behind the industrial build was of one huge model construction kit, like Meccano – a prefabricated system based on low cost, serial modulation.The materials were chosen for quick assembly and consisted of steel, glass and Isopol panels. Made out of prefabricated polyurethane sheets wrapped in tin, the panels were developed for industrial use in refrigeration chambers for meat storage. They have great thermal capacity, and they were also chosen for their rigidity, versatility and low weight, allowing them to be easily transported to the factory. “The project can be disassembled and relocated since the dimensions and constructive system are designed for this purpose,” Stambuk explains.Examples of Pullpo’s visual work form an integral part of the project, and add to the surrealist feel of the space, as do the plants and trees planted inside the old factory. “I suggested the size and placement of the Pullpo photography so that the glass surround spaces would appear as large aquariums, so it looks like there are octopuses swimming in enclosures next to people passing by,” Stambuk explains.The lighting has been kept bare and basic to complement the industrial aesthetic, as does the steel cabling that supports the structures, and the bare strip-lights over the car park.Stambuk describes the project as architecture reinvented as advertising metaphor, where astonishment and fiction rival reality. Although she has worked on projects like this before, she says: “I was younger and not as daring. Now, I endeavour to build what I imagine.”
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