Sharon McHugh takes a critical look at Princeton University's new Chemistry Lab
Earlier this month, Princeton University dedicated the new Frick Chemistry Laboratory, a soaring, four-storey light filled structure designed by Hopkins Architects in collaboration with Payette, that is already attracting new faculty and students to its rank. The 256,000 sq ft building replaces the old Frick Laboratory, a collegiate gothic structure built in 1929, with a contemporary building that is to be the new nexus for the sciences on Princeton’s campus. There are many things to like about the building, beginning with how it is positioned to transform the way the sciences will be taught and practiced in the future. For a chemistry building, it is remarkably open and transparent. For a large building, it has the feel of a much smaller one. And, for a building in the United States it is extraordinarily well crafted.
An Englishman in Princeton
It took an Englishman to bring a building of these qualities to Princeton’s chemistry building, or so thought Princeton. In deciding who to tap for the building, Princeton short-listed four firms, one American, three British, before selecting Hopkins. Hopkins’s selection was both a nod to its practice, a firm known for buildings of remarkable craft, and an indictment of American architecture. There still exists a great divide between the way in which architecture is practiced in the United States and abroad and sadly, American buildings, while much improved, are light years behind their European counterparts in terms of material innovations and sheer building craft. But Hopkins had something else going for it. It had buildings of Frick’s ilk in its DNA - being from a country that has a love of a proper workshop, a tradition of building in glass that goes back to Paxton’s Crystal Palace, and an equally strong tradition of landscape. All of this would prove valuable in designing Frick.
A gateway in a garden
The new chemistry building had enormous aspirations, making it a challenging building to design. First and foremost it had to be a world-class chemistry laboratory capable of attracting top-notch faculty and students to its rank. As the second largest academic building on Princeton’s campus and the biggest energy consumer, it had to be remarkably sustainable and tucked into its hillside site with great aplomb to minimise the impact of its size on the surroundings. As the first building visitors would see as they approached the campus from the south, it also had to be worthy of announcing Princeton’s brand. And, being located in a burgeoning science neighbourhood that spans two sides of a busy road at the southernmost edge of Princeton’s campus where the grain gives way to the wild, it had to be a building that would make a statement yet hold a convivial conversation with the buildings around it, a mix of athletic facilities and science buildings of various styles and ages, including the new genomics building designed by Rafael Viñoly and the new neuroscience and psychology buildings currently underway designed by Rafael Moneo. It was this conversation that most interested Princeton - the desire to link the building to the other natural science buildings to foster chance encounters and cross-collaboration that would lead to great discoveries.
An incredible lightness of being
Hopkins rose to the challenge, designing a building of remarkable thinness and lightness for its size and complexity. By pulling the building’s volume up and dividing it into two wings - one for labs and one for offices - linked by a 27ft wide by 75ft high atrium, in essence creating a skinnier building, Hopkins solved the communications problem characteristic of large buildings, bringing people and activities closer together. In making the building highly transparent, greater visual contact within the department (the building) and across the disciplines (the neighbourhood) is achieved. This transparency also makes for a highly energetic workplace that is visible from within and outside the building. Requisite laboratory equipment has become the ‘new’ wallpaper, giving the interior a decidedly industrial albeit antiseptic feel, while transmitting the building’s function to the world beyond. The building has many advanced energy saving features including, 216 photovoltaic panels that produce solar energy, ceiling mounted ‘chilled beams’ that provide cooling through passive convection to the rooms, energy efficient fluorescent lighting, high efficiency fume hoods with automatic sash closers, and a greywater system. Sadly, the building’s longest façade faces west, making it especially challenging to manage from an energy perspective. Hopkins has addressed this condition by outfitting the building’s curtain wall with aluminum grilles and fritting that partially shade the glass.
The need for a proper front door
Whilst the building scores high marks for innovation, it is less successful as a conciliator of context. Hopkins inherited a difficult site. As a result, the building seems shoehorned into its locale, overwhelming its surroundings. The largeness of some of the structures around it, specifically the stadium and gymnasium, helps to mediate Frick’s sheer size. But it is still a big beast and it would be helped a great deal by something it just doesn’t have: breathing room. Frick is linked to the science buildings on the east side of campus by a new pedestrian bridge designed by Swiss engineer Christian Menn. While the bridge is itself a graceful structure, it terminates abruptly at the building’s entrance. A building of Frick’s exceptional quality deserves a proper, more ceremonious entry sequence and an entrance plaza that can hold up to its scale. New plantings and a wholesale reworking of the pedestrian and vehicular circulation in this area by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates will hopefully help matters.
Barring this, Princeton’s new chemistry building is a technological tour de force that will no doubt spark great minds to do great things.