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US Lab Design Leads the World

| January 27, 2015 | 0 Comments
by Mark Reed
Mark Reed Photo

Mark Reed

I have been traveling to Europe for consulting work over the past two years and have been struck by the difference between laboratory architecture there and here. Flexibility, the hallmark of design for science in the United States, is less common in Europe. In comparing the two design approaches, I have come to believe that there is a connection between the uniquely American “innovation economy” and an open approach to laboratory design.

In virtually all areas of design, the United States has regained its stature as a world leader. In the automotive, fashion, web, telecommunications, and computer industries, we are consistently generating beautiful innovations that transform our times, enabling a creative economy to flourish. This is facilitated by a uniquely American design philosophy.
One of the first to apply an architectural understanding of laboratory design was the American architect Louis Kahn, who in the early 1960s created one of the world’s most influential buildings, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Beyond its striking minimalist beauty, Kahn identified the need for flexibility and free space planning in laboratories. By pulling all the service spaces away from the lab, employing interstitial mechanical design, and column-free interiors, he created a ballroom concept for lab planning that held the promise of infinite flexibility and adaptability to change. Everything that could be gotten out of the way was gotten out of the way.
The plan of the Salk Institute, flexible as it is, appears structured in today’s context. We are evolving toward larger footprints with fewer constraints and the integration of “soft” spaces into our labs to promote socialization and comfort. In recent trips to Europe, I have been struck by how rigid and inflexible contemporary European lab design tends to be. It favors systemization over flexibility, which gives the resultant structures and spaces a rigidity that could result in obsolescence as needs and technology change. It is not inherently future-forward. Arrays of shafts, structure, and core elements appear to limit flow that may be developed within and among the lab spaces. Creative, interdisciplinary breakthroughs in scientific discovery are likely to occur despite — not because of— the buildings that house the researchers.
The idea that the US is far ahead of the rest of the world in its thinking about collaboration, flexibility in planning surprised me when I first thought of it. As a traveler abroad, I have generally considered other countries to be more sophisticated than we are about design matters. But as I work more and more with leading-edge life sciences companies and academic researchers, I see the interrelationship between design and innovation in American companies. There is an understanding that research will change course rapidly and the fewer constraints we place, the more adaptive and supportive our work can be to the future of science.
Mark Reed AIA is a founding principal of Lab / Life. Science. Architecture, Inc. a Boston-based firm specializing in laboratory design.

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