- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Va., an arm of the Bethesda-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is a state-of-the-art biomedical science center with an unusual mission supported by a number of very unusual social and architectural features.

Janelia’s energetic director, geneticist Gerald M. Rubin, proudly hails the project as a “social engineering experiment” and an experiment in changing scientific culture.

Architectural form here rigorously follows function, which in this case was the creation of a complex that would do away with standard hierarchies found in academia and bureaucracy. Small groups of researchers work together on an interdisciplinary basis free of constraints that generally govern such funding agencies as the National Institutes of Health.

The campus is minimalist in a maximalist way. The centerpiece of the $500 million dollar project is a curving, three-story glass, concrete, stone, wood and steel structure built into the slope of a hill and called, simply, the Landscape Building. At 900-plus feet in length, it contains one of the largest installations of structural glass and the second-largest green roof in the country.

Retaining the word farm in the title along with its original name of Janelia — from the combined first names of the daughters of long-ago property owners — reflected the institute’s wish to respect the land and its history. The manor house preserved on the property is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The idea behind this horizontal ivory tower — one the most adventuresome research facilities of its kind in the country, if not the world — was to give the widest latitude possible to scientific investigators from a variety of backgrounds.

Glass walls allow for unobstructed views of pristine countryside and encourage deep thoughts on deep matters having to do with what goes on in the human brain.

Janelia’s mission is to discover how information is processed by neuronal circuits inside the so-called normal brain and develop new imaging and computational tools to find out.

Flexibility is a byword throughout. No dress code prevails, not even white lab coats. Laboratories are designed for easy conversion to new uses when needs change. Benches easily can be turned into desks and fittings reconfigured without hiring a plumber or electrician. Service connections come up from the floor rather than down from the ceiling for both practical and aesthetic reasons.

A wide central glass-enclosed staircase enhances the possibilities of colleagues meeting each other informally. Free coffee available in a ground-floor pub encourages personnel to share thoughts on an ad-hoc basis.

Likewise, round tables and restricted lunchtimes in the dining room are intended to inspire conversation among visiting and resident scientists; the latter work under a lab leader in groups of no more than six. The table size is larger than the average size of lab groups so no one group has a monopoly on talk.

These relatively small but telling details mirror the philosophy of Mr. Rubin — who also doubles as a lab leader — and other HHMI officials. “We say ‘We think you are a good investment, so take this money and do what you think best. Just follow your instincts for the next five years with this money,’ ” he explains. “We think that is the way to do a good job and get a bigger return.”

Already in one year, researchers have come up with one new “toy”: a microscope powerful enough to see proteins inside cells.

“When scientists do experiments, they don’t expect all of them will work,” says Mr. Rubin, who compares scientists to painters or playwrights, creative artists for whom “real impact moments happen in a very erratic way.”

He relates the Janelia approach to that of venture capitalists likely to invest in many companies so that at least one will prove productive and cover the costs of the rest.

“I get off on the light and the flow of the work space — the modality of it,” remarks colorfully dressed biochemist Loren Looger, interviewed while ordering a midafternoon cappuccino in the pub. “Machines are integrated into a seamless workplace.”

It was no problem, for example, when a machine he requested turned out to weigh 4 tons and required reinforcing the floor, the former Stanford University scientist says.

Since its official opening last October, Janelia has employed just half the staff that eventually will number about 230 resident and 100 visiting scientists. (Visitors can be housed in a curvilinear 96-room hotel overlooking a man-made pond below the main building.)

Mr. Rubin uses the architecture of the main building as a test in the selection of people he would like to attract. Open walls and corridors are likely to entice outgoing personalities who function best in an open-ended environment.

HHMI, the largest nonprofit philanthropy of its kind in the country, bought 689 acres along the Potomac River in Loudoun County seven years ago and hired the prestigious New York architectural firm of Rafael Vinoly PC after a rigorous competition. Unusual enough, according to Jay Bargmann, a Vinoly vice president, the competing firms were given strong signals about HHMI’s preferences before the final choice was made.

Promoting the idea of community was uppermost.

“We tried to translate the community aspect by the transparency and by the connectivity between the built environment and its natural setting,” he says.

Curiously, too, the focus of the work to be done there had not been decided finally until after construction began. That was integral to both the building’s function and design, says Robert McGhee, HHMI’s key architect on the project, who now is a professor at Rice University in Houston. Science buildings should reflect “functions that evolve over time,” he says.

The atmosphere on the campus is not all heavy-duty deep think. Children of employees sometimes can be found playing around the ground-floor pub near the on-site child care center. NFL games and nature movies play on the screen in the 250-seat auditorium. The pub’s name, Bob, is crafted in bright red neon — after Mr. McGhee, author of a forthcoming book about Janelia.

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