The Centre for Research into Infectious Diseases - June 2015
The Centre for Research into Infectious Diseases (CRID),
University College Dublin
Photographs - copyright Dennis Gilbert / VIEW Pictures
courtesy of O'Donnell + Tuomey
The brief called for a hybrid building with two distinct functions: a privately funded research institute for highly specialised, cutting-edge investigations into medical microbiology; and – as an extension to an existing campus facility, the Virus Reference Laboratory – a suite of standard laboratories for routine commercial testing of medical samples from the Dublin area.
This dark and handsome laboratory, peering over the trees along the Stillorgan Road, is one of the finer specimens in the museum of contemporary architecture that is Belfield. “The best buildings in UCD are the leggy ones,” says John Tuomey. “I like the space that good buildings in Belfield generate under their canopies – verandas, porticoes, undercrofts, thresholds. I don’t like buildings that exclude. I like skirts that lift, that gather you in under.”
CRID is black – which passes for colour in Belfield, where the standard palette comprises shades of grey concrete, white stone and blue engineering brick – although its surface can also appear grey, blueish or dark silver, depending on the light.
“We realised there would be wonderful views to the north,” says Tuomey. “We thought of the difference between testing urine samples and the world of the research lab dealing with exotic diseases as being like that between an office and an artist’s studio. The research laboratories should have that sort of intensity, where staff from all over the world would be working at all hours of the day and night.”
Trolleys of test tubes, on the other hand, simply want flat floors: a single storey of mute testing laboratories surrounds a small gravelled and forested courtyard at the back of the scheme and butts up against a plain, south-facing office tower with strip windows.
Two floors of research laboratories – treated as north-facing artists’ studios overlooking the sweep of Dublin Bay, from the city centre to Howth – are dramatically elevated on red steel columns and shelter a timber-slatted library and seminar space on the ground floor. There is more than a hint of Le Corbusier’s Houses 14 and 15 at the Weissenhof Siedlung in Stuttgart (where Tuomey was a key collaborator on Jim Stirling’s Staatsgallerie) about the parti.
“We didn't want chimneys and ducts,” he says. “This is not a unit of production, but of contemplation and concentration. I don’t think plumbing has the same value as structure. It’s not for expressing.” Unusually for a heavily serviced laboratory building, there are no flues or pipes on view; they are all subsumed within the overall form.
For reasons of economy, the building was constructed in lightweight dry construction. The understated external cladding pattern treats the tower and its pulled-out drawer of testing laboratories as a single entity. “If we were using stone, we’d mark out the storey heights,” says Tuomey, “but we thought the fibre-cement cladding was more like a wrapping material, where all you should read is the form of the thing wrapped. In the entrance hall, slotted into the valley between offices and studios, we brought the external materials inside and under, to increase the sense that the research labs have been lofted up.
“Sheila and I grew up influenced by the Constructivists,” says Tuomey. “The early perspectives by the Vesnin brothers show stretched skeletal frames and taut surfaces. We thought we’d make a Russian building while we were at it. I relish its surface tautness, with the windows pushed through – blistering through – the skin. Usually windows are set deep and cast shadows within the depth of the wall; here, they’re pushed out.”
To my eyes, there is something slightly gawky and appealing, something almost zoomorphic, about CRID. It’s that leggy quality that Tuomey talks about: it brings to mind nothing so much as a little black water hen, teetering on spindly red legs, dashing from the cover of the trees towards Belfield lake.