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Luminous paradigm: the Genzyme Center brings transforming imagination to US office design, adding environmental and human dimensions.

Seen in passing, the Genzyme Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts does not seem particularly revolutionary. It looks very much like another glass-clad corporate headquarters, even if its profile and massing are slightly unusual, and its cladding is strangely varied. On the edge of the city near Longfellow Bridge and Broad Canal, it forms part of a new development on an abandoned industrial site. Genzyme is one of the first of seven new buildings being built to a masterplan by Urban Strategies of Toronto that determined overall envelope and massing.


Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner of Stuttgart, and of Venice, California are the architects of the Genzyme Center. Their proposal was selected in competition, yet the development of the USA's first large environmentally aware office block was created in intimate collaboration with the developer client, Lyme Properties LLC and tenants, the Genzyme Corporation. Dan Winny of Lyme explains that, at competition stage, they did not select the Behnisch practice because the developers wanted to make a green building, but because they were attracted to 'the quality and freshness of the European design work'. During the competition, in which the by then probable tenants Genzyme were involved on the jury, it became clear that the Behnisch proposal was what Winny calls 'a concept for a radically different type of innovative building based on principles of responsible energy use ... maximizing the environmental quality of the workplace.' In other words, the Center was to be built to principles now commonly accepted in the German-speaking lands and Scandinavia.



But the Behnisch building is far more than a conventional transfer of European values across the Atlantic. Its central atrium is literally breathtaking, a joyous paean of luminous space, with which the office floors engage in terraces, balconies and platforms. The complex social life of the office is revealed as you look up, with open-plan offices (American style but involving low cubicles) mingled with private (though usually transparently walled) individual rooms, open stairs linking particular floors to encourage formation of vertical as well as horizontal forms of local office communities. The architects' aim is to create vertical urbanity, with public and private spaces, conference rooms, a cafeteria, and library and internal gardens to clean and oxygenate the air. It is too early yet to see whether all these measures will work, and particularly whether they will work together. But early evidence is promising. In its optimism, the space is highly reminiscent of Hertzberger's Centraal Beheer when it first opened as a brilliant and radical experiment in organizing offices that respect individuals and small groups as well as the organization.

As far as possible, all workplaces receive daylight, either from the perimeter or from the atrium. On clear days, the void is filled with daylight that is transmitted down through the ceiling prism elements. A system designed by the Austrian firm Bartenbach Lichtlabor involves seven solar-tracking mirrors on the roof at the north side of the atrium that reflect light to fixed mirrors on the south side, from where the sun's rays are deflected downwards to the pools at entrance level, whence they shimmer upwards. (The system is not dissimilar to the one used by Foster in the Hong Kong Bank, AR April 1986). On the way down, sunlight is intercepted and deflected by the multiple moving prism plates of roof-hung chandeliers. According to the angle at which sunlight hits them, the plates reflect or transmit, distributing sunshine into surrounding office spaces. The devices, with their ever-changing patterns of sunlight, are one of the reasons why the space is so breathtaking when you first see it. Its luminosity is further enhanced by reflective balustrades and a lamellar wall on the south side of the atrium: the vertical lamellae are moved to change the wall's reflectivity according to the angle of the sun and the nature of the sky.

Artificial and natural lighting are related by sensor systems that slowly dim overhead lights when the atrium's total luminosity is appropriate. All workplaces have low-energy task-lights, which both allow people to control their immediate environments and add to the feeling that the building is a congregation of individual places.


As well as being a great light-chute, the atrium is the central element in the building's climate control system. It forms a huge waste-air chimney. Fresh air reaches occupied areas from ceiling grilles, or through the openable parts of the perimeter walls. Pressure differentiation drives used air to the atrium, where it ascends to be expelled at roof level. Energy for the heating and cooling system is provided by steam from a small local power station two blocks away from the site. In summer, the steam drives absorption chillers; in winter, its heat is exchanged into heating for the building. Buro Happold, who designed the climate control system, claim that there are no distribution losses in this energy system, and that its emissions are reduced by filters at the power plant. Energy-saving considerations go even as far as rainwater handling: some of it is used to supplement supplies to the cooling towers (saving city supplies) and some feeds the landscaped roof.



Curtain walls wrap the perimeter (designed in conjunction with Happold's and Bartenbach Lichtlabor). Over all 12 floors, they have openable windows that are linked to the building management system that automatically opens them on cool summer nights to reduce the temperature of the building. Over 30 per cent of the external envelope is a ventilated double facade with a 4ft (1.22m) interstitial space that acts as climate buffer. In winter, the voids capture solar gains and re-radiate them to the interior. In summer, various shading devices including adjustable sun protecting blinds and coloured curtains reduce insolation. As the opening of windows and the adjustment of the blinds are controlled by individuals, the building's appearance constantly changes in detail.


This external indication that users are valued and have some control over their individual working conditions is echoed in sensitive detailed handling of interior finishes and choice of furniture. The bits you can touch are welcoming--cloth or wood, rather than plastic. Cubicle walls are capable of much flexibility, not just for management re-arrangements, but so that individuals can make their own work spaces particular.


The Genzyme Center is a truly brave building. Its realization of the inspiring belief that North American offices can be made more decent to work in than the usual dreary deep indoor prairies needed great and unusual trust and vision between developer, tenant, architect and all consultants. So did the notion that an environmentally friendly building that costs more initially than its conventional equivalent will eventually provide handsome paybacks for its developers, tenants and occupants alike. It is an inspiring shift in the evolution of the office building type, more inventive and integrated than almost anything yet built, even in Europe. Every aspect of its performance should be measured, and luckily there are lots of local academics just up the road who are capable of doing the job.


The Genzyme Center is almost the complete opposite of normal US office block produced by core-and-shell development, where architectural efforts are so often perforce confined to decorating exteriors. Here, an immense amount of creative energy has been poured into the interior. Externally, the building is constrained by a rather dumb masterplan. What could the Behnisch team have done with it had they been given a freer hand? P. D.




Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner

Project team

Stefan Behnisch, Christof Jantzen, Gunther Schaller, Martin Werminghausen, Maik Neumann

Executive architects

House & Robertson, Los Angeles: Douglas Robertson, Nick Gillock, Patricia Schneider Next Phase Studios, Boston: Richard Ames, Scott Payette


Ken Greenberg

Environmental consultancy, structural and M/E/P/engineers

Buro Happold

Green building consultant

Natural Logic: Bill Reid

Planting interior gardens

Log ID

Natural and artificial lighting

Bartenbach Lichtlabor

Workspace design

DEGW: Frank Duffy


Roland Halbe
COPYRIGHT 2004 EMAP Architecture
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Article Details
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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