Concrete contrasts

KAAN Architecten’s scientific research building for a new university campus near Paris plays with the contrasts between its no-nonsense concrete forms and the landscaped setting, while also paying attention to users. Roseanne Field reports

Situated just outside a national park, 20 km south west of Paris, the new Institut des Sciences Moléculaires d’Orsay (ISMO) building is part of a new 600 hectare academic campus created on the Plateau de Saclay.

The ‘urban campus’ is part of the Paris-Saclay project, a complex including higher education facilities run by University of Paris-Saclay, plus housing, offices and other services. The university, established in 2014, combines the science-based resources of several ‘grandes écoles’ along with three French universities – University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, University of Évry-Val-d’Essonne, and University Paris-Sud, which includes the ISMO itself.

The concept for ISMO was established in 2010 as a fusion of three research laboratories with a focus on molecular physics and “physico-chemistry.” The building is now home to 170 workers including researchers, teacher-researchers, PhD students, and postdoctoral researchers.

A multitude of architectural practices have been involved in the development of the campus. For the ISMO building, University Paris-Sud organised a design competition from which they shortlisted several firms. Dutch practice KAAN Architecten was selected as the winner, and collaborated on the project with local associated architecture practice FRES architectes, a firm founded by two ex-KAAN employees, Laurent Gravier and Sara Martin.

Although KAAN Architecten has a track record of high quality laboratory buildings and educational facilities, the combination proposed here was something new for the firm. “It’s something that we had done before, but in a different mixture,” says Kees Kaan, founder of KAAN Architecten.

Design considerations
The fact the building would be bringing together researchers from across three universities played an important part in the brief, and the thinking behind KAAN Architecten’s design. “It wasn’t only that the ISMO needed a new building, it was also used to catalyse the merger between the different faculties,” explains Kaan. “Everything would be new – the building, the colleagues, and the collaboration.”

Keeping this merger in mind was noted as an “important element” by one of the client bodies, University Paris-Sud, says Kaan. The architects visited the existing facilities and got to know the scientists that would be working in the building, in order to get a better understanding of their habits and the type of environment they required. “They tend to be very introverted, so they hide away in dark laboratories and little offices,” he says. “We tried to organise the building in such a way that of course they’ll still be able to do their work – they have these facilities where they can focus – but on the other hand we wanted to make something where they would be encouraged to walk through the building, meet other colleagues, and engage.”

It’s for this reason that the practice designed what Kaan calls a “very compact” building. “We stacked, we made a lot of floors,” he says. As well as wanting to encourage communication and interaction among the building’s users, the compactness meant the building had as little impact on the surrounding landscape as possible. “It’s a beautiful site amongst trees, and doing a building with a smaller footprint allowed us to keep as much of the green space as possible intact.”

The nature of the work taking place in the laboratories means they often need to be relatively dark, so the practice designed the building with a large number of these spaces located in the basement. Where the work allowed them to be daylit, rooms have been stacked one above the other, on the northern side of the building. “On this side you don’t have very much sunlight on the facade, so it allowed us to open it up, make it transparent, without the laboratories becoming too hot or too exposed to sunlight,” explains Kaan.

When it came to organising the remaining rooms, the architects wanted to do something a bit different. “We sort of turned the building inside out,” says Kaan. On the east, south and west elevations, the corridors are arranged around the outside of the building, with the offices in the middle, organised around two courtyard areas.

This brings more light into the building but also creates interaction with the campus outside in the form of visual connection with the circulation areas, while the offices are more private. “When you go from the laboratory to your work room, you’re walking a little bit through the campus,” he explains. “You have a view of the beautiful green spaces, and you’re not walking down an internal corridor with neon lights and dark spaces.” He stresses that it was “very important” to make these circulation spaces “of a very high quality.”

Arranging the building in this way also means the offices benefit from more privacy from the outside world, while still receiving plenty of natural light from the central courtyards. “It allows people to withdraw there,” Kaan says. “They still have daylight, but have their own workspace. It’s private.”

Aside from the labs and offices, Kaan says the third most important element to them as designers was the meeting spaces. It’s for this reason they designed a full-height, open atrium to greet users. “The atrium is one space from which all the corridors spill out,” he explains. It’s also home to a two-storey library, located to the right of the entrance and connected by an enclosed spiral staircase, plus a cafeteria, various balconies designed for meetings that project into the open space, and a staircase that leads down to the labs and parking garage.

“It’s really the core, the heart of the building,” says Kaan. “It was a very important element because it’s from this you understand the sections of the building, the scale, you connect all the different floors and the building merges into one ‘house’ for the people that work there.”

Scientific requirements
KAAN Architecten describe the building as being “divided into two architecturally expressed realms, intertwined into a single entity”. The reason for this, says Kaan, is due to the differing requirements of the laboratories and offices. “The laboratory spaces are lofty, they were designed as high, open spaces,” he explains, while the offices are “relatively standard spaces.” The height of the laboratory spaces means where there are five office floors, there are three lab levels. It also meant there was leftover space on the roof to hide the air handling equipment and so on behind the glass facade. “The north facade is very much a factory look,” explains Kaan.

The facade running around the remaining three sides consists of a glazed concrete grid, with floor-to-ceiling glass set 80 cm back. “You could say that you take the concrete grid of the east, west and south facades and as you go north you slice it, and then you have one big glass facade,” Kaan says. “Behind that you find all these labs and equipment, it’s a very technical section. That’s how it was brought together in one volume.”

Designing for the laboratories themselves actually proved something of a challenge due to lack of information on who would be using the spaces, and what for. “Because of the merging units of the faculty, they could only start thinking about who was going to use which laboratory after the winner was chosen, and the design was more or less final,” Kaan explains. “It was designed, in the preliminary stages, as a relatively flexible set up that could be filled in during design development.”

Designing them as open, lofty spaces worked well as it allowed plenty of room to add more detail including technical equipment. “It was a very interesting dilemma,” says Kaan. “You have to design a building which is relatively specific, for a specific use – you have to anticipate that in your design, but during design development you still need to do a lot of adaptation.”

Although the building is predominantly used for research purposes, Kaan says around 20 per cent of the building is used for teaching. For this reason a small auditorium/lecture theatre is “suspended like a box” over the atrium. However, as Kaan explains, “It’s not a building for students, if it was, we would have made larger floor areas where students could hang out, etc. This is much more scientific – in that sense it’s drier, it’s more tough, it’s not as ‘pleasant’ as it would be for education.”

The main material used throughout the building is concrete – the building’s concrete structure supports itself so no columns were required. “The facade is load-bearing,” says Kaan. The building also features unpainted concrete floors throughout, and is as a result mostly grey – only the atrium (white), hall to the parking garage (black), and auditorium, which features light oak cladding, are not. “It’s all very simple, very modest,” explains Kaan. This was in part due to the relatively tight budget.

Kaan’s preference for concrete is also due to its weightiness and the design flexibility it facilitates. “It allows you to cast elements and make the building feel very monolithic, something that’s difficult if you work with steel and cladding,” he says. “The depth of the facade gives it this weight which many contemporary buildings don’t have any more, because they have a very thin skin.” He asserts that the idea of putting the structure outside is a “really strong” feature of the building.

The surrounding trees also played a part in the overall look of the building. “From day one, I felt you would never see this building as one piece,” says Kaan. “You would always see it shining through from behind something else.” It was this overarching idea of viewing the building through the trees that gave Kaan the idea to use the concrete grid. “It’s a very geometric backdrop to an organic front, being set in this undulating landscape,” he says. “You get this beautiful contrast of this meteor that fell in the forest.”

These contradictions – the concrete among the trees and the “inside out” nature of the building’s layout – are things KAAN Architecten often play with in their designs. “There are often these kind of oxymorons we use,” says Kaan, “making two contradictions meet and connect, and develop into a concept.”

While KAAN Architecten were responsible for the design, FRES architectes – featuring the ex-KAAN duo of Gravier and Martin – took on several responsibilities such as coordination of the engineers, and general site supervision.

“The fact they had worked with me meant they immediately understood everything, and made things better,” Kaan comments.

The building was opened in September last year and the architects report that it has been well received by those working in it. “We went to the opening, and I got a lot of positive feedback,” says Kaan. “They gave us a good feeling, and apparently they are very happy.”

In particular Kaan is pleased with the support and backing the whole project has received from the French Government. “I like that they’ve put so much effort and energy into developing a completely new campus for scientific research of a very high level,” he says. “It’s really something that Europe should do more often, invest in these kind of things – education and research – and do it in a qualitative way.”