At the tower's southwest corner a "missing" column, achieved with a steel transfer truss, creates a floating corner. This levity not only marks the building's main entrance, it contributes to the sense of loft created by the surrounding vertical elements and generous glazing.
Even programming necessities are opportunities to elevate the tower. A state-of-the-art air handling system, required to ventilate fumes from the research labs, adds to the building's height.
Air can run through the labs only once, but the administrative and instrument spaces, housed on the bottom two floors, have less stringent needs. Inserting a layer of mechanical equipment between the second and third floors permits a single system to send fresh air upward to the labs, and recirculated air downward to the administrative and instrument spaces. At the same time, this placement ensures that air intake vents are raised above heavier, hydrocarbon-laden air from traffic outside.
A 20-foot- (6-meter-) high screen wall that conceals exhaust ductwork on the roof also unifies the facade and caps the building, while contributing additional height.
Innovative Material Graces Lecture Hall
At the southeast corner of the site, a new lecture hall complements the research tower. Located at the intersection of the department's two primary axes, the lecture hall's curved and faceted form announces a special forum within the department.
Inside are materials selected for both their aesthetic and acoustic properties. The hard surfaces — the vaulted ceiling, the floor-to-ceiling cheek walls to either side of the podium, and the lower portions of the side walls — project sound out into the lecture space. The side walls cant back 1-1/2 degrees to avoid the sound reflections that parallel walls would generate. Six-foot-high wood paneling guards against scuffing on the lower section of those walls.
Contrasting with the warm, pearwood-stained maple, and installed in the upper portions of the side walls, an innovative application of sintered aluminum enhances the hall's acoustics. Although widely used in Japan, this material is just beginning to find applications in North America, and the University of Wisconsin's chemistry hall is among the first.
Originally developed to induce ink to flow smoothly through the tip of a ball-point pen, sintered aluminum is manufactured by heating (or sintering) powdered aluminum in the presence of a debonding agent which creates pockets and voids in the metal. Its acoustic properties derive from this irregular porosity; sound travels through, but can't find its way back.
This application of sintered aluminum works metaphorically as well as acoustically, according to Black. He says: "In its combination of nature and technology, the material expresses the department's work of investigating the natural world and applying discoveries in innovative technologies."
Fostering Achievements to Come
The new research laboratories also provide moral support to the department's work in progress by providing good lighting and views for the occupants. An 8-foot- (2.4-meter-) high band of glass runs the length of the labs, along the building's west facade. The generous daylight through these windows is complemented by electric lighting that takes advantage of 16-foot (4.9-meter) floor-to-floor heights.
Because the floor structure is of concrete, the ceiling space that would otherwise need to be enclosed for fire protection can be open and expressive. Mechanical systems are exposed for ease of access, and uplighting creates a brighter, more airy workspace below.