• 02.22.11

Stem Cell Research Center Feels Like a Mountaintop Hideout [Slideshow]

Like stem cells themselves, the new building at the University of California, San Francisco solves problems previously thought impossible.

Like a high-tech fortress watching over San Francisco, the curves of the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building snake through a grove of towering eucalyptus trees, hugging the dramatic incline of Mount Sutro. The new building, located on the University of California, San Francisco campus, was completed by Rafael Viñoly Architects in collaboration with the design/build team of DPR Construction, SmithGroup Architects and Forell/Elsesser earlier this month, and is now occupied by the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research, one of the world’s comprehensive laboratories devoted to stem-cell research.


While the structure itself features budget-friendly, utilitarian design inside and out –corrugated steel exterior, pristine white labs — the building is dramatic in concept to accurately represent its wide range of progressive technologies, from human development, to nervous system and spinal cord injuries, to organ regeneration studies, to treatments for leukemia, cancer and Parkinson’s disease. “Rafael wanted to make this facility for stem-cell research more visible,” says project architect Chan Li. “He wanted to make it into a proud, prominent, beautiful building.” The architects designed the center to be an attention-grabbing landmark for a new field of bio-tech which, despite its controversy, is unmatched in its potential to save lives on a global scale.

With a 60% grade, the site had been declared unbuildable.

Working on a site with a 60% grade that had been declared unbuildable, the architects had a unique challenge before them: minimize the footprint but maximize the amount of workspace, says Li. About 250 researchers work on the four floors, each positioned on a graduated plane that steps slowly down the hill, and each includes a green roof that provides a terrace for the floor above. The 700-foot-long building’s only attachment to campus is via a series of sky bridges, which reinforce the connection to nature. Being suspended hundreds of feet above San Francisco with the movement of loading docks and utility plants below, and dizzying, expansive views of the Golden Gate Bridge is an exhilarating experience. It feels very much like a mountaintop secret society for scientists.

Viñoly was also conscious of the social needs of the building. He wanted to avoid a high-rise concept which would mean that people in the 25 different laboratories wouldn’t interact, except in the elevator, says Li. “We wanted people to meet with each other in the building and have a meaningful exchange,” he says. “We arranged the flow so engineering naturally forces the meeting of people.” So the labs are connected horizontally, with ramps and stairs leading along, and sometimes through, the workspaces. Tiny areas for socializing are strategically tucked into transitionary spaces. All of this contributes to a concept of “cross-pollination” — basically the ability to peer over the shoulders of their fellow researchers, so ideas can move just as freely as people from lab to lab. “It’s kind of a cliche but it’s absolutely true,” says Li. “You’re more aware of opening the walls with glass so you can look over people in a different section of a building.”

It feels very much like a mountaintop secret society for scientists.

What helped the center decide on Viñoly’s concept was Viñoly himself, remembers Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research. As the four finalist firms pitched their concepts, Kriegstein watched, disappointed, as one-by-one, each firm presented an unimaginative rectangular block that dismally occupied the vertical space. When it was the Viñoly team’s turn, Kriegstein was surprised to learn that Viñoly was there. “He himself showed up — and was a one man show.”

Viñoly had no slides, only an overhead projector, where he drew out his idea with a black marker as he explained his concept. “He said stem-cell research was the next transformational event in medicine of the 21st century, and one of the pre-eminent programs in the world should capture the spirit of the work inside,” says Kriegstein, who watched in awe as Viñoly sketched out a skeletal structure that started at the foot of the hill, and rose up 17 floors, one floor higher than everything else on the campus. “He thought that was appropriate,” says Kriegstein, “that it dominated the campus and was visible from everywhere.” While the facilities personnel hemmed and hawed about cost and feasibility, the scientists were sold, he remembers. “He was the one architect that really got what we were supposed to do.” (To get a feel for Viñoly’s artful freehand, check out his firm’s website where it feels like he sketches an entire city during the Flash intro.)

Kriegstein is “thrilled to be here,” he says, as he gazes over the lush green roof outside his office window and a eucalyptus grove swaying in rhythm before the sweeping, crystal-clear views of the city. He confirms that the horizontal strategy designed for chance-meetings has worked to great effect for his team (Kriegstein himself even consolidated four planned coffee-making areas into two, just to encourage more interaction). But even more importantly, the prominent, castle-like location helps the scientists feel empowered in their life-saving mission. “I think this will be exactly what we wanted,” he says. “It’s really inspiring.”

About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.