Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Transforming a candy factory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, into the research headquarters of Novartis, the Stubbins Associates emphasized clear thinking
Christine Temin -- Interior Design, 1/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
If you've lived even a few years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you'll recall the 1927 factory looming over Massachusetts Avenue between MIT and Harvard Square. Running down the building's brick facade, squiggly letters proclaimed simply NECCO, for the New England Confectionery Company, and the water tower on the roof was painted to resemble a multicolored roll of NECCO Wafers.
Now that the Stubbins Associates has transformed this beloved landmark into the research headquarters of the Swiss medical conglomerate Novartis, it's the interior that stops traffic—particularly the amoeba-shape atrium. The brainchild of associate principal Audrey O'Hagan, the space's glass, steel, and stone curves approach art nouveau for voluptuousness. They include cylindrical elevator shafts wrapped, vinelike, by staircases and ribbons of balconies undulating overhead. The giant swirls of a double helix, rendered in French limestone floor tile, hint at the building's new identity.
Medical research is a high-stakes race for new drugs that may cost—and earn—more than $1 billion. Stubbins adopted a similar mind-set in reinventing the 500,000-square-foot, six-story NECCO building as a workplace for 500 employees initially, twice that number eventually. While NECCO was still manufacturing Clark bars on the third floor, demolition was in progress on the fifth, and the $120 million project was completed in just 14 months, $10 million under budget.
As president of the Novartis Institutes of BioMedical Research, Mark Fishman feels that speed depends on collegiality, hence the architects' emphasis on transparency. "We attempted to change the sociology of science," says Stubbins president and CEO Scott Simpson. With the atrium's two pairs of glass elevators, for instance, it's not unusual to see scientists in separate capsules signaling to each other on the way up or down.
Upstairs, corridors converge on a "bubble room," a glass-enclosed circular meeting space with 8-foot-high sliding whiteboard panels for jotting down ideas. (In symbols, numbers, or plain English.) Everyone in the hallways can see who's inside the room, while those being watched can see who's watching them—a secret spot for gossip and romance this is not. Also on each floor, a communal break-out area offers bulletin boards, televisions, vending machines, and a kitchenette.
For more substantial meals, Stubbins transformed an adjacent three-story power plant into what must be one of the handsomest employee cafés anywhere. The ceiling is 22 feet high; copper-clad dividers are topped in roller-coaster curves. The power plant also houses an intimate auditorium with "duck-out" wings that allow latecomers to locate empty seats without disturbing the proceedings.
The heart of the operation is, of course, the labs—large, well lit spaces on the perimeter of the upper five levels. Offices cluster at the center of the floor plates, with corridors holding the whole thing together. To break up their seemingly endless length, the vinyl-tiled floor is scored with identifying strips of cherry red, teal, etc.
These bright stripes represent a rare concession to color in an essentially neutral environment. ' Most furniture is beige or black. Nor is there any art to speak of: A painting would distract from the sweep of a wall. But that sweep is so fluid, so richly detailed, that the term minimalist doesn't apply.
Another touch of teal, this one neon, accents exterior windows on the building's Mass. Ave. side, but the City of Cambridge—notorious for picking fights over architectural "improvements"—wouldn't permit significant alterations to the most visible elevation. Turn onto Lansdowne Street, however, and a sign of change appears: A triangle of steel-framed glass escapes from the brick, jutting out like an aggressive slice of pie. Peer inside, and there's a winter garden of medicinal plants.
That glazed wedge, which replaced a loading dock, is the public's most significant opportunity to experience the ultra-secure Novartis facility. Otherwise, the interior is sealed, its identity barely flagged except for that famous water tower. But now, instead of the stacked bands of candy colors, it displays the swoop of the double helix.