A medical research centre where scientists are banished to the basement and life-or-death matters are discussed beneath giant deep-sea creatures, orange bubble clusters and alien spacecraft … we visits Will Alsop’s most flamboyant, and contradictory, offering yet.

Outlandish pods loom over serious laboratory benches at Queen Mary’s medical research centre in east London
Outlandish pods loom over serious laboratory benches at Queen Mary’s medical research centre in east London

London’s down-at-heel East End is the scene of the fullest, most flamboyant flowering yet of architect Will Alsop’s surreal imagination. On a site behind the giant Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, four trademark Alsop pods have emerged, floating freely within a large airy void. Each is playful, curvaceous, hollow and equally outlandish in different ways. They range from what looks like a spiky deep-sea creature dressed in black oilskin to a zebra-striped tropical fish, a delicate, fabric-wrapped oval spacecraft and a cluster of shiny orange bubbles.

All of which may suggest that this is the latest in fun-packed children’s theme parks. In reality, however, the building is a strictly controlled, antiseptic environment that houses one of the most highly specialised, earnest – indeed, life-or-death – of human activities. It is an advanced medical research centre for Queen Mary, University of London.

The fusion of the whimsical and the disciplined makes up just one of the £45m building’s several highly original paradoxes. Even the design team was a combination of near-opposites. Working alongside Alsop Design, with its celebrity reputation for fun architecture, was Amec Design and Management, which was brought in purely for its hard-nosed expertise in laboratory design. “Neither practice would have won the competitive interview on its own, as we were up against Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid and others,” says Alsop’s Simon Carter, who ran the combined team. “It was a symbiotic relationship, and the boundaries became very blurred.”

In overall form, the 9000 m2 building consists of two elongated curtain-walled boxes separated by a long courtyard open to public streets at either end. Plain, darkly tinted and shorn of all modelling, the exteriors of the two boxes are counterpointed by vivacious glass murals in dancing quasi-organic forms and vivid colours by Scottish artist Bruce Mclean.

Vivid colours permeate the building. The glass bridge linking the two blocks across the central courtyard is in luscious shades of fuschia pink and tomato red. The cafe and reception area are bright orange. And in the horseshoe-shaped lecture theatre tucked behind the narrower of the two blocks, the walls, the ceiling and the 400 seats are in matching shades of green, an effect that is surprisingly soothing and not in the least claustrophobic.

So where in this spicy architectural feast do Queen Mary’s white-coated boffins fit in? Perhaps the most glaring paradox in the building is that its raison d’être – the laboratories – have all been quite simply pushed underground. Above ground level, the two rectilinear blocks contain everything else – reception, cafe, lecture theatre, and offices. Three of the four blobs enclose meeting rooms of various sizes, while the orange bubbles contain a two-storey visitor centre. To complete this odd inversion of functions, the upper four storeys of the narrower five-storey block are entirely devoted to services plant enclosed behind louvres.

This might give the impression that the 400 research scientists based at the centre are Cinderellas in their own building, banished to creeping around in dark, dank basements, while upper levels resound to fun and games. But the boffins have little to fear: there’s nothing gloomy or claustrophobic about the basement laboratories. They occupy a football pitch-sized continuous floor, which stretches across the whole site beneath the two main blocks and the central courtyard. The pavement of the central courtyard is studded with glass pavement lights to suffuse the laboratories in daylight. The individual laboratory spaces are separated by clear-glazed partitions, which give the scientists a relieving sense of space and visual contact with their colleagues. And where the laboratories extend below the wider rectangular block, they are entirely open to the light-filled void and its four pods floating directly above them.

Unquestionably, what this all adds up to is a very exciting building to visit, and one that breaks the mould of research laboratories. The question is whether such unrestrained architectural high jinks get in the way of serious, long-term medical research.

The research institute is confident that the architectural allure of the building performs several important roles in itself, and the building’s unorthodox form coincides with, rather than cuts across, more serious functions. To start with the building’s immediate visual impact, Professor Nick Wright, head of Queen Mary’s medical school, hopes it “will prove a magnet for attracting the best scientific talent in the world”, an increasingly important concern as top universities crank up the competition for the top teaching staff, researchers and students. The spectacular new building also goes a long way to make up for the depressing inner-city surroundings of Whitechapel. Alsop’s Carter adds: “Tower Hamlets planners have been almost unbelievably supportive because they see it as setting the standard for regenerating the area and for the proposed PFI hospital next door.”

In the same spirit, the building is also intended as a public showcase for the abstruse but critical world of medical research. A school trip to the visitor centre within the orange bubble pod with its view down to the open lab benches below should be an unforgettable experience for any child. The paradox here is that the whole research building appears to be opened up to visitors, yet the confidentiality of scientific research bars them from close contact with the lab benches. This conflict has been neatly resolved by locating the main entrance in the narrower block, from where visitors proceed to the main pavilion and the visitor centre across a bridge at first floor level, thereby segregating them from hard research areas on ground floor and basement levels. As for the scientists themselves, the ubiquitous daylight, colour, airiness and architectural flair make for a highly stimulating workplace. Enticing specialist scientists out of their traditional isolated laboratory cells and encouraging them to mingle in what are effectively open-plan laboratories, shared write-up areas and attractive social spaces is intended to increase productivity. “Our vision was to create [a building] that crucially promotes cross-fertilisation and the sharing of ideas,” says Wright. “For example, this means that scientists working on adult stem-cell biology can interact with groups involved in skin, diabetes, gastroenterology and neuroscience research, which will pay dividends in collaborative research and increased output.”

Adaptability is another benefit of the unusual configuration. Combining all the laboratories on a single large floor plate allows individual laboratories to be rearranged with minimal disruption. And concentrating all the plant in a dedicated block enables it to be serviced and even replaced without invading the scientists’ space.

Queen Mary’s medical research centre transforms one of the most earnest of building types into an exhilarating work of architecture. This much is immediately apparent and quite irresistible. The true test, however, will be whether the building really does enhance the hard-nosed research that is conducted within its walls. The verdict here will inevitably be slower coming forth. Even so, for such an impressive building to prove an uninspiring workplace would surely be a paradox too far.

Queen Mary’s Institute of Cell and Molecular Science

client Queen Mary, University of London
architect Alsop Design and Amec Design & Management
structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor
services engineer WSP UK
fire engineer Warrington Fire Research
cost manager Turner & Townsend
project manager Gardiner & Theobald
main contractor Laing O’Rourke
pod construction Design & Display Systems, Architen Landrell
M&E engineering Crown House Engineering
structural steel Westbury Tubular Structures
structural concrete Laing O’Rourke
roofing Performance and Deck Roofing
curtain walling Seele
laboratory fit-out Labflex

Medical research building summary

All the 10300 m2 research centre’s laboratories are combined in the 3000 m2 basement to encourage interaction between the 400 scientists. The wider of two elongated pavilions contains four meeting room pods and write-up spaces; the narrower one houses main reception, cafe and four floors of plant rooms.

The substructure is a reinforced concrete box that lines perimeter retaining walls of steel sheet welded directly to piled foundations. The two pavilion superstructures are steel framed. In the larger pavilion, inclined tubular steel columns are braced by a concrete roof plate to concrete stair towers.

Internal environment
The laboratories at the base of the open glass pavilion are environmentally segregated from the offices directly above by blowing a horizontal air curtain across the void at ground level. Air-handling units in the four upper floors of the narrow pavilion are remote from the basement laboratories, but wide air-distribution ducts reduce fan pressure and noise.

Fire safety
The level of structural fire protection was substantially reduced from 60 minutes recommended under building regulations. As the larger pavilion had a high ceiling and smoke vents in the roof, no fire protection was needed to the steel columns. Rooms containing high fire-risk equipment were individually compartmented.

Costs and procurement
The contractor was appointed on a JCT lump-sum contract after a two-stage tender and 85% of costs had been agreed. Even so, the whole design had to be value-engineered by £5m: a proposed bridge of offices across the atrium was superseded by a mezzanine floor, and humidity control was dropped. The estimated final construction cost is £34m, or £3300/m2.

The site was excavated to form the basement laboratories, but gravel spoil was recycled as aggregate in the building’s concrete. Experience in fitting out the Millennium Dome helped main contractor’s project manager cope with the special design intricacies, including the four extraordinary pods.