Page D1.2 . 25 June 2008                     
ArchitectureWeek - Design Department
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Viñoly at Wageningen


The university was particularly insistent that this important piece of architecture have no front or back — that it be a pristine object in the landscape, worthy of views from all sides. So Viñoly created a virtual cube that suggests a jewel box. It has a certain iconic resemblance to Yale University's Beinecke Library, designed by Gordon Bunshaft in 1963. Inside its concrete cubical grille is a six-story glass-and-aluminum box.

How did the design of such a composite envelope evolve, especially in a culture that, according to Kolova, is not crazy about exposed-concrete buildings?

The driving idea behind the design was to achieve an exterior structure, an exoskeleton, that would allow column-free lab spaces and offices that could be changed and rearranged as needed. The clients, whom Kolova describes as very practical, responded very positively to this idea, which made structural and functional sense, and they loved the image of an elegant patterned cube.

But they were less convinced about the material. Kolova relates that the Dutch are extremely fastidious about their built environment, which is generally well maintained. Exposed concrete buildings can have slight imperfections in their surfaces if the material is poured or precast to less than exacting specifications or with poor quality control. The material also has a tendency to become spotted or stained and can harbor algae growth.

The architects searched for an acceptable concrete that would reduce or avoid these imperfections. They found it at a Dutch precast concrete manufacturer that produces a self-compacting concrete with a titanium dioxide additive.

The self-compacting concrete has a surface that is extremely dense, smooth, and free of tiny bubble holes, all of which prevents algae growth. The titanium dioxide makes the concrete "self-cleaning," so that dirt, discolorations, and other blemishes wash off in the rain. The material always has a clean, just-poured look to it.

The chemical additive also lends the concrete a slightly bluish cast, which, Kolova explains, gives the material a crisp, sharp profile against the sky.

The architects studied the angles of the diamond pattern for the exterior, experimenting with 60- and 30-degree variations. But the 45-degree angle — which results in a grid of perfect squares turned 45 degrees — made the most sense from a structural standpoint, and also aesthetically. Another angle would have varied the loads on the diamond shapes, and some members would have had to be larger than others.

Also, a 45-degree pattern would best support plant growth, a function that was considered early in the design process. One might imagine the entire building as a garden lattice, covered with green vines. The client ultimately became concerned about the maintenance headaches and the costs associated with cultivating a building-sized Chia Pet, and the idea was dropped. But the concrete lattice stayed.

Keeping the structure outside resulted in only eight interior columns, and the framework also allows opportunities for climate control on the exterior. It is more efficient to shade the sun outside the building envelope, instead of inside, where heat is still gained and must be expelled. On all but the building's north side, retractable exterior shades are located outside the curtain wall to block glare and prevent solar heat gain.

Both the shades and tilt-in operable windows allow the interior environment to be adjusted by the building's occupants. Kolova explains that this hands-on climate control, not common in the United States, is typical in counties such as the Netherlands, which have more stringent building codes regarding energy conservation and sustainability.

High-performance insulating glass curtain walls, low-emissivity glass, and abundant natural lighting and ventilation are just some of the sustainable features incorporated into the Atlas Building. On the whole, these features tend to be low-tech; there are no fancy systems, such as photovoltaics.

The central atrium is another sustainable element, delivering soft north light to the heart of the building through a series of sawtooth light monitors on the roof. Viñoly skewered this atrium space with crisscrossing ramps that allow occupants to move easily between floors without resorting to the elevator. (The researchers typically don't need to circulate more than a floor or two up or down.)

The bridges are perfect for the casual meetings and serendipitous conversations that can stimulate scientific inquiry. The floor of the atrium is flexibly furnished and contains places to sit and relax, as well as display cases and other accoutrements for socializing.

This central public space is accessible via a 90-meter- (295-foot-) long ramp that rises from the nearby parking lot, skims along the landscape, and delivers you to the building's main entrance on the north wall, a story above grade. A break in the concrete lattice pattern marks the entrance, creating a gateway to the atrium inside.

Colors throughout are bright — Kolova describes the predominant color as "tennis-ball" greenish-yellow — meant to suggest new plant life, bursting forth on a spring day.   >>>

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Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, the chair of the University of Hartford’s Department of Architecture, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.



ArchWeek Image

The Atlas Building's most distinguishing feature is a seven-story precast concrete superstructure that surrounds the building envelope.
Photo: © Robert Mehl Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Inside the Atlas Building, all the laboratory spaces are organized around a central daylit atrium.
Photo: Guus van den Brekel Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

A 90-meter- (295-foot-) long ramp leads up to the Atlas Building's entrance, one level above ground.
Photo: Rémi Dupas

ArchWeek Image

Atlas Building site plan drawing.
Image: © Rafael Viñoly Architects PC Extra Large Image

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Atlas Building section drawing, looking north.
Image: © Rafael Viñoly Architects PC Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Four successive bridges span the atrium, linking the four upper floors of the Atlas Building.
Photo: Erik van Ravenstein Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Thanks to the external superstructure, the interior laboratory and working spaces of Atlas provide a high degree of space-planning flexibility.
Photo: © Luuk Kramer Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

The Atlas Building was required to have a compact footprint despite an outwardly spacious site.
Photo: © Robert Mehl Extra Large Image


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