The Francis Crick Institute is a scientific powerhouse formed by six founding members: the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and three London universities. The partner institutions will conduct research into how and why disease develops, as well as training new generations of scientists.
The institute’s £650m new building is the biggest single biomedical research centre in Europe. HOK was appointed architect of the Crick Lab, collaborating with founders, external stakeholders and a second architectural team, PLP. The first scientists moved in this August and by 2017 all 1,500 staff will have relocated from three dated labs in and around London to the new site next to St Pancras station and the British Library.
The Crick is one of the most complex buildings in London. There’s the sheer size of it – it’s 170m long and 50m high, with 93,000sq m of floor space and 1,553 rooms. It’s a site so big that staff will be able to navigate it with a wayfinder app, the Crick’s internal version of Google Maps. And then there are the incredibly high specifications that go hand in hand with the facilities and equipment used by scientists at this level.
One third of the structure, four floors, have been placed below ground, leaving eight floors above ground on the south side and seven on the north. Two floors in the roof are given over to services plant, along with another two in the basement. The roof curves on its smaller, northern side, reducing the impact on local views.
While hidden floors and a curved roof lessen the building’s visible mass, it’s not a particularly beautiful external design – but HOK has certainly tackled a huge practical feat, if not a visual one.
The Crick’s ground floor is reached by a dual entrance, which leads to a lower level for visitors and an upper level for staff. Public spaces include a gallery, 450-seat auditorium, flexible seminar rooms and a discovery lab for local school visits. With open design and large windows, the public areas were created “to reach out to not just the scientific community but to the local community,” says Andy Warner Lacey, director of interior design at HOK’s London office.
Looking in from the ground floor, the different layers of the structure reveal more of the building’s complexity, “like layers of skin” and the auditorium takes a biological form. “We thought ‘what are change agents inside the body?’ – organs. That’s one of the reasons that we adopted these organic shapes,” Warner Lacey explains. “It’s a message that this is a place where things change.”
And one of the narratives that this design sets out to change is the individualism of modern scientific research, in which new ideas are discovered, published but rarely shared freely between researchers. HOK’s design deliberately encourages its users to cross paths and witness each other’s work, regardless of their current team or discipline.
Floors one to three of the building house four laboratory neighbourhoods, linked by two atriums that cross at the centre of the building to create its collaborative hub, with breakout areas and informal spaces. Bridges form links throughout the space from north to south and side to side, some of which even serve as additional breakout zones.
A large, central stair forms another focal point, further encouraging the flow of movement through the space. Research leaders’ offices are purposely too small to hold team meetings (though they do provide space for more private one-to-ones) encouraging the scientists to make use of the open, collaborative spaces.
It’s all about giving staff “a variety of places where interaction can take place – different areas for different characters and different opportunities,” says David King, technical principal with HOK.
“You can increase the opportunities for people to interact – and if there is interaction then it encourages collaboration – but you can’t force people to collaborate,” he goes on to explain. “You can only make it difficult for them to hide away in boxes; you can increase the chances of them bumping into colleagues from other disciplines.”
Every Crick researcher will be given two lab benches. Their work areas are separated into more fixed primary lab spaces and flexible secondary labs where they will share equipment, coming face to face with other scientists they might never have crossed paths with in a more traditional setup. Primary labs can also be transformed into secondary labs, thanks to the interchangeable modules of the benches.
“Everyone talks about plug and play – but that’s really what it is, it is adaptable. Over a matter of hours rather than weeks you can change it around,” says King. “The needs of science change – and the pace of change is accelerating all the time. So it’s really important to give the building a real sustainability, to be able to adapt it for these changing requirements.”
He admits: “The most important thing about the building is that it functions. It’s all very well having a stylistic approach… but at the centre of it all is whether or not it functions as it should do.”
While some have criticised its bulky design, the Crick Lab has clearly been shaped by its end users, providing them with cutting-edge facilities in a campus-style environment and giving them access to new ideas and ways of thinking.
The design of HOK’s vast new London science lab takes its inspiration from human biology