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Medical School Building, Queen Mary University, London, England

Issue 30 April / May 2006 : Architectural : Education

Architects: ALSOP DESIGN LTD & AMEC Lighting Design Concept: JANET TURNER

Perhaps no other architect has been linked so much with the new wave of school building projects than Will Alsop. At the Queen Mary Medical School, Alsop teamed up with lighting guru Janet Turner for a radical lighting design aimed to stimulate the medical students.

Created by a dream team that combines the innovative architecture of Alsop Design Ltd with AMEC’s exceptional expertise in the field of leading edge R & D design plus Janet Turner’s inspirational lighting design, the £45m Medical School Building at Queen Mary, University of London’s Whitechapel campus, pioneers a new way of working for scientists at the cutting edge of research. For the first time ever in a UK university, 400 scientists work side by side in an open-plan work environment on a vast single research floor, (3,800sqm), conducive to improved communication and the cross fertilisation of ideas. In addition, much needed supporting amenities such as meeting rooms and small seminar spaces, plus a new public interactive science exhibit, The Centre of the Cell, is accommodated in a series of spectacular pods suspended above the open-plan laboratory floor.
Aiming to create an outstanding new building for the College, plus a significant landmark and educational resource for the local community, the design team developed the building’s form around two primary concepts; firstly to foster better integration of the science disciplines through the provision of an open-plan environment; and secondly to create a building which broadcasts its purpose, achieved by the development of a seductively transparent building envelope.
Janet Turner was thrilled to be able to work with Alsop once again after many successful collaborations: “Having worked with Alsop Design on previous projects that included Peckham Library, Victoria House, Palestra and Fawood Children’s Centre, I was delighted when asked to join the team on Queen Mary. As this invitation was offered in the early design stage I knew there would be an opportunity for real collaboration - a demand to match-up lighting appearance, effects and solutions to the dazzling originality associated with this architecture, an understanding of integration and the realisation of the lighting role to match the built environment. So often the lighting consultant is appointed too late and has to resort to applying light as a surface cosmetic stifling rapport and suffocating the creative process. For Queen Mary light could reveal form, texture, translucence and colour.”
Speaking about the project, architect Will Alsop said, “Our aim has been to create a space that avoids the traditionally sanitised environment of laboratory research buildings - here the very fabric of the building speaks about science and is conducive to better science by bringing researchers together.”
Peter Trebilcock, head of architecture at AMEC added, “This inspirational building breaks the mould. Its transparency and openness - rare in laboratory buildings - encourages interaction both amongst staff and with the community.”
The Medical School Building, extending over a total area of 9,000sqm, takes the form of two distinct structures - sitting either side of a new open mews, and linked by a multi-coloured glass bridge at first floor level. The larger structure is a three storey glass pavilion, which is designed to reveal and communicate the function of the activities inside, by combining large opaque coloured artwork panels inspired by molecular science, by the artist Bruce Mclean within the predominantly transparent building skin.
Directly opposite the glass pavilion is the six storey long narrow rectangular structure named the Wall of Plant, because of its primary role of housing all the sophisticated mechanical and electrical services required for the research facilities. In creating this building, the architects have married functional demands with aesthetic concerns to dramatic effect, by designing the majority of the building envelope as a backdrop for light and art. A special profiled zinc cladding system has been specified, which is capable of reflecting moving images and artwork projected from the roof of the pavilion opposite. At ground level the building’s cladding changes to a transparent and finely detailed curtain walling system. This creates a strong visual link with the building’s colourful interior and denotes the public main entrance to the Medical School, as well as giving access to the public cafeteria and the school’s impressive 400-seater lecture theatre.
Visitors to the medical school will arrive at the main entrance in the Wall of Plant and travel across the link bridge, entering into the spectacular interior of the glass pavilion. Before them will be the dramatic view of the extraordinary pods, suspended above the open laboratory floor below, within the vast airy volume of the pavilion, and overlooked from the first and second floor perimeter write-up areas by researchers and scientists. The four pods, all nicknamed by the design team according to their shape as the project progressed, provide an exceptionally innovative and animated means of accommodating key requirements of the brief.
The main entrance, reception and cafeteria vibrates in oranges, pinks and reds beneath CDM - TC ‘warm appearance’ downlighters and 8 one metre diameter ‘Durian’ pendants.
“Durian was inspired during a visit to the area when familiarising myself with context and local community,” states Turner. “Having presented the lighting concept to the client which included a photograph of the durian fruit, I hadn’t a clue about what it should be made from, its size or light source. However, serendipously my local design shop displayed a hand pleated mesh confection not unlike my vision. I bought it and immediately contacted Georgina Scott, the designer, to discuss a bumper version. What luck!”
Leading off the main entrance the lecture theatre is decorated in a kaleidoscope of soothing greens punctuated with isolated red seats. ‘Poppies in Fields’ is lit with twelve Fagerhult indirect fluorescent pendants finished in white enamel.
The main research centre known as the Glass Pavilion is a four storey building containing laboratories, open plan cellular offices, meeting and seminar rooms and an interactive educational exhibition space.
The Centre of the Cell, which appears as a giant orange molecule and is the largest of the pods, provides a volume of 195sqm on two levels. It is equipped as an interactive learning facility for the public. The open-topped mushroom pod - linked directly to the bridge - acts as the meeting and greeting pod on arrival in the pavilion and gives visitors their first awesome views across the space. Located at the southern end of the pavilion, pods Cloud (white tensile fabric stretched over an ellipsoid form) and Spikey (dramatic star-like structure - a highly complex geometrical tensile form with its distinctive blue LED engagement rings) provide the adaptable meeting rooms for small and medium sized seminar groups (up to 30 people).
In order to achieve the vast floor area required to accommodate the scientists on one open research floor, the architects located the scientists on a lower ground floor six metres below street level that runs across the site directly below the mews and the glazed pavilion. The laboratories are flooded with natural light from the glass pavilion and from roof lights in the central mews area that sit directly above the laboratory space. The football pitch size footprint accommodates 395 research scientists in an airy and highly visible void. Basic fluorescent battens are fixed beneath the curvaceous glowing blue lab which hovers above the high tech work benches kitted out with gas, air and water. The adjacent cellular labs are suffused with daylight through the roof lights which, after dark, emits a green glow on to the mews pavement and the ceiling above the workbenches at lower level. The highly flexible and efficient research facilities include a combination of large open plan primary laboratory areas, closed primary areas plus a perimeter of enclosed secondary space.
The write-up area at ground level features linear fluorescents under cabinets above the desks sited within the main circulation space. This seven metre ceiling carries multi faceted Zumtobel ‘Miros’ mirrored reflectors which, when angled correctly, bounce beams of light from adjustable projector lights fixed at a level accessable for maintenance on the perimeter glazing bars. This provides both ambient and directional light on the working surfaces and modeling illuminance on the hovering pods.
The arrival point is further accented with ‘Halo’, a light structure suspended immediately above the ‘Mushroom’ pod, an irregular octagon that echoes the stripey pod’s own form. Attached to the structure and within the wraparound hand pleated mesh cacoons are three separate circuits: CDM-TC 35 watt Concord:marlin Torus 10° beam spotlights; low energy compact fluorescent glowing panels; white LEDs to add sparkle and sheen to the chrystaline forms that grew out of the original Durian fruit style pendant.
These flamboyant and contrasting pods are dramatically silhouetted at one moment against the tinted glazing or are creating watery reflections in the polished stainless steel vertical surface of the stairwell.
The glass pavilion interior springs to life after dark revealing the dazzling pods. The ‘Wall of Plant’ zinc surface, chosen to receive light and art projects, are linked by the glass bridge above the mews.
A public walkway is lit to a comfortable and friendly level, a combination of dramatic streaks across the pavement surface, glowing elements from the bollards and the green glow emanating from the labs below.
In addition to the pioneering open plan design, the extraordinary pods, the innovative use of artwork and the distinctive lighting, the new Medical School Building breaks the mould in its use of colour. The deep green that pervades the interior of the state-of-the-art lecture theatre, (and the occasional bright red auditorium seat); the pinks and purples that feature in the bridge link glazing; the bold orange walls that enliven the main entrance and the deep rich red carpet that runs throughout the glass pavilion.
This is a project where architectural lighting serves the building rather better than ubiquitous daylight. This is no better illustrated than when the glass pavilion surface reflects on to the adjacent terraced houses and ‘60s flats like soaring clouds in a vast sky.

technical information

Architects: Alsop Design Ltd & AMEC - Will Alsop, Simon Carter, Matt Judge, Judith Sayers, Tarek Merlin, Christophe Egret
Lighting Design Concept: Janet Turner
Lighting Suppliers: Zumtobel Staff, Concord:marlin, Fagerhult, Selux
Lighting Product Design: Georgina Scott (special fittings)
M&E Consultants: WSP
Artwork: Bruce McLean


queen mary university
The ‘Halo’ light structure is suspended above the ‘Mushroom’ pod. Concord:marlin Torus spotlights, compact fluorescent glowing panels and white LEDs interplay with the hand pleated mesh cacoons
queen mary university
The 400-seat lecture theatre, nicknamed ‘Poppies in the Fields’, features Fagerhult Isola Parabol indirect fluorescents
queen mary university
Inside the ‘Spikey’ pod
  • queen mary university
  • queen mary university
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