International Centre for Life
Viewing from Many Angles
Depending on which direction you approach from, the center will convey distinctly different impressions. There is the simple and yet satisfying, functionally adept, gray office block, which is the Bioscience Centre.
From the west you could get the impression that a giant yellow express train is about to slip down a large green and black tunnel. This is the genetics research center converging onto the exhibition center with its "Global Garden."
The public space proffers an open invitation to enter the square, with the surrounding buildings creating an almost civic feel, especially with the nearby by St. Nicholas Cathedral spire in the background. In one corner you are greeted by a historic building, representing times past, which does not appear out of place, surprisingly, in such a scientific neighborhood.
Latching it all together and providing an almost ethereal entrance is the delicate steel framework traversing the space between the two functional buildings.
Following History's Trail
From the sky, the complex is embryonic in shape, but the resemblance is purely incidental. The curved layout is "a metaphor for continuity," explains Terry Farrell.
Rather than relying on bioscience, the overall site's curvilinear form has its roots in the urbanistic sweeping railway lines that skirt the center's southern border. Within the curve there are two elements that rationalize the public square.
The first is the historic path of the Scotswood Road that runs between the Bioscience Centre and the Genetics Research Institute. The memory of this route is marked on the paving and symbolized by the open metal grid screen, which links the Genetics Institute and Bioscience Centre together in a gentle curve.
The second element is the "rifle-shot wall," which runs from north to south and provides a public path through the site, knitting the complex into the surrounding area.
The thought of a historic building amongst all of this may sound perverse. Architect John Dobson, the creator of 19th century Newcastle, designed this market keeper's house, which is listed on the protected buildings register.
Significantly, the site is adjacent to Dobson's own Central Station. Farrell was very keen to embed in the futuristic site part of Newcastle's history. "Both form landmark points that define the place," he says.
An inherent part of Farrell's style is the use of vibrant colors. Here the overall color scheme separates individual building elements and, in keeping with the center, represents the DNA coding colors of green (Global Garden roof), yellow (Bioscience Centre and Genetics Institute), blue (Genetics Institute) and red (Global Garden internal wall).
The Bioscience Centre
The basic materials of the Genetics and Bioscience buildings are concrete block, glass block, and colored plaster on a concrete frame.
The rounded L-shaped, 86,000-square-foot (8,000-square-meter) Bioscience Centre was the first and simplest to design and build. It is a straightforward functional concrete-framed building, faced in sandstone on the piazza side and plastered on its north side with an enormous amount of glass brick.
It is fitted out with commercial laboratories for companies keen to develop the fast-growing biotechnology market of pharmaceuticals, medical testing, and X-ray equipment.
The Institute of Human Genetics
Alongside the Bioscience Centre is the 58,000-square-foot (5,400-square-meter) Institute of Human Genetics, a similar four-story concrete frame building, which is the new home for Newcastle University's genetics research team. Its piazza elevation is colored in a yellow plaster.
The brief stated that the Visitors' Attraction Centre was to be 1.5 stories high, which was lower than the architects had originally envisaged when they built the Bioscience Centre. This height interrupted the continuity of the curvature, so they linked the Genetics Research Institute to the single-story visitors' attraction Black Box by a "ski slope" or what could be mistaken for a giant express train.
"I think the 'ski slope' device is one of the most interesting sculptural junctions of the scheme," said Farrell, "setting in motion a spiral that cascades down to the lowest curve of the Visitors' Attraction Centre."
Life Visitor Centre
There are two elements to the Life Visitor Centre: the Black Box and the expressive Global Garden.
Like other contemporary museums, the Black Box contains multimedia displays that do not require architecture or context. This part of the complex is designed out of sheet metal with access to mechanical equipment on its flat roof. As it faces the railway line and Central Station, its box-like industrial aesthetic is very fitting.
In contrast, but complementing this, is the Global Garden, which is the entrance hall to the Black Box. Unlike the enclosed architecture of the Black Box, the Global Garden provided a structural design challenge.
Flooded with natural light, its variable roof shape has a large timber lattice supported on steel columns. Its concept was inspired by the shape of a folded leaf and by the idea that nature produces, though evolution, the most structurally efficient forms.
So the goal was to design a roof structure sympathetic to these life-forming principles. The result was one of the most geometrically complex roof shapes yet created in steel and timber. It contains no straight lines and its 1,500 pieces make up a jigsaw that took the engineers four times as long to design as a more straightforward structure.
Its profile defied mathematical convention. Structural consultants Mott MacDonald found that the roof had no analytical or mathematical shape, so they had to develop a way of turning an architect's sketch into something they could analyze.
The 250-foot (75-meter) long Global Garden structure started life as a block of polystyrene, which the engineers gradually whittled into shape, in consultation with the architects, using the ubiquitous and very sharp Stanley knife. The chosen shape was a genuine free-form structure impossible to analyze logically.
Mott MacDonald used standard AutoCAD software to convert the architect's sketches into a grid of nodes. They then applied their own in-house software to transform the 3D CAD shape into an analytical model on which loads and moments could be imposed and tested.
Using timber provided the engineers with the flexibility to achieve the desired awkward shapes. The roof could quite practically have been designed as self-supporting but, by clustering the columns in raked groups, they take up less floor space. Externally, bright green pre-patina copper cladding covers the timber skeleton.
The Global Garden's organic design structure celebrates the diversity of life. Here, up to 280,000 visitors a year will be gently coaxed into understanding life's basic building blocks through a £10 million package of futuristic interactive displays. Therefore, the building design was itself themed on life.
Farrell compares the Life Centre to his 1980s TV-AM building in London, which was equally significant for its urbanistic response to its surroundings. He notes: "Both were done in a hurry, both had to be economical, and both have, I think, a real immediacy."
Like the Berlin Science Centre of Lord Stirling, the International Centre for Life is a recognition of industrial and urban foundations, which the future continuously builds on.
Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, UK, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Architects: Terry Farrell & Partners
Project Management: BDP Project Management
Structure and Building Services Engineer: Mott MacDonald
Quantity Surveyor: Gardiner & Theobald
Landscape Architect: Gillespies Environmental Design
Main Contractor: Laing
Glazing Systems: Schuco
Acrylic Plaster: Scotseal
Architectural Metalwork: Dane Engineering
Profiled Cladding Systems: Hoogovens, Gasell Profiles
Mesh Panels: Potter & Soar
Precast Concrete Cladding: Trent Concrete
Sun Fins: Merlin
Polished Blockwork: Lignacite
Maintenance Cradle System: Cradle Runways
Global Garden Structure: Westbury Tubular (timber and steel)
Copper Subcontractor: Varla
Copper Supplier: KME UK
Glazing Subcontractor: Topside Group
Glazing Supplier: Schuco
ETFE Rooflight: Vector Special Projects
Standing Seam Aluminium: Corus Kal-Zip
Steel Deck: Plannja
EPDM Membrane: Carlisle Sure Steel