Interview by Joseph Giovannini
How did the project come about?
Thom Mayne, FAIA (design director, Morphosis): Lawrence Technological University did an invited short list. Our presentation focused on our interest in academic work, which included the whole direction toward a social pedagogy, transparency, and discourse as well as the work itself. They called former clients, and I think they liked our reputation for carrying a project through, and for being very hands-on at a sophisticated level.
How did the design develop?
Mayne: I think it is one of the most straightforward projects you’re going to find in our oeuvre over the last 20 years. We did an assessment of the existing campus, which has three new buildings and some existing stuff—one by Charles Gwathmey. We were probably selected to design an icon building. Our buildings have been somewhat complex and maximalist. But as we looked at this project, we decided it needed the opposite. We were very conscious that once we decided to do this, it would be interesting for us to do and for other people to watch us what we did.
The building is very simple, and a lot of people wouldn’t expect this from us—including the client, in the beginning. This building was built for about $370 a square foot—$370, right? That’s half to one-third the cost of most of our academic projects. I’m not saying that as a negative. I’m saying that really guides you and is a creative challenge. The way you innovate has to be really, really taut.
We have this single bar with white fabric on it; it’s a line and it’s going to grow maybe twice as large as the school expands. Incredibly minimalist. The object of desire is the smooth black lozenge in the middle, and for that we used carbon fiber. The school has a research group in engineering that specializes in carbon fiber. It’s a state-of-the-art material—it’s what my Tesla is made out of—and it’s a symbol of their technology at this point in history. But it’s still crazy enough in this country; it took quite a bit of work.
Aleksander Tamm-Seitz (project architect, Morphosis): It’s definitely the lightest façade we’ve ever done, because the carbon fiber is the actual building enclosure, not just a cosmetic panel. It is a new material and a new potential technology in the field of architecture, and without previous architects having done a certain level of work, we wouldn’t have been able to push it further. Composites are still in their infancy in architecture.
How does your building fit into the rest of the campus? And what is the strategy for future expansion?
Mayne: Our building is the last piece that defines the quad, and then it continues into the forest to form more of an external gesture to the nearby freeway. At night, when it’s lit, it’s this bar of light you see going down the highway in the forest. It becomes quite a long line that represents the school to the outside world.
Tamm-Seitz: We were also given the constraints of connecting the two existing buildings on either end of the quad. We lifted the building up, creating a gateway to the quad along this extruded section which can be phased and extended however many times they want.
We were interested in looking at the idea of flexibility and universal space—ideas that Albert Kahn and Mies were dealing with, but in relation to interdisciplinary studies in universities. There are a lot of different programs in this building—engineering, robotics, biomedical engineering, and life sciences are the primary ones in this first phase, and subsequent phases may introduce architecture as well—and because they don’t know how those programs will grow, they don’t know which classrooms need to be larger next year versus this one. The section that we set up allows for a zone of flexible space that can be reconfigured to accommodate different disciplines, class types, and sizes. You have labs with support spaces stacked on one side, and then you have a light-filled flexible space with a clerestory on the other. And that section is extruded the length of the building.
What is the material of the white fabric scrim, and what role does it play in the design?
Tamm-Seitz: It’s stretched ETFE—a thin plastic, basically. It’s held off the façade approximately 18 inches outside the building enclosure, with clerestories behind it. This takes out the glare that would come into those laboratory and flex spaces. We used it for the reasons that we use perforated screens on many buildings. It’s a new, next-generation scrim.
Mayne: It’s an interesting fabric in that it doesn’t look like fabric. It has a reflection like glass. And if you see it on the building, you would think it’s a hard material because it’s reflective. The windows behind it are high up because the instructors and professors want as much counter- and workspace as possible, so we brought as much daylight into those spaces as possible through clerestories.
The building is essentially a large garage. And it’s not that different from our astrophysics building at Caltech. For that, we were going, “Oh man, this could be a super complex job. Nothing could be more complicated than what these guys do.” And in the end—since it is all serviced by incredibly complex technology which is brought in, changed, and being built—they wanted a garage. Same thing here. Like our studio, it’s essentially one long, linear open space that they can use any way they want. They bring in the technology, and the technology has a short shelf life—it’s changing continuously. The building wanted to have maximum flexibility and neutrality so they can use the space for research they don’t know exists yet.
The simplicity that you decided on here, as you note, is rather surprising given your portfolio. Does it represent a different direction in your work or is it project-specific?
Mayne: We’re going to have to wait to answer that one. We’re having a discussion and we’re aware that it’s kind of boring that we’ve been typecast in a certain way which is not really accurate. But we do admit that if you look at the work, a lot of it is formally complex and comes out of a strategy of using multiple systems to solve things. And there is a discussion that it would be interesting to use our same ambitions and talents and the direction of the office to produce something like this. It is a conversation we’re having, and it will be pursued.
But let me add, for me personally, this would have been a much more difficult project to do 20 years ago when I felt compelled to prove the nature of this firm and myself, in terms of what we can do in architecture. I’m 72 years old, and I can now look at a project and accept that this is a straightforward, simple project and I can respond with what I think is appropriate, without bringing anything to the project about my personal ambition or my personal goals as an architect. Simple problem, simple solution. And I would argue that a lot of architecture needs more of this. Every building can’t be an icon. That’s a strategic choice, if they need some particular statement, and in many cases the answer is “No.” I would say that’s one of the biggest architectural problems today: An overinvestment in icons which keeps devaluing them.
Project: Taubman Complex, Home of the Marburger STEM Center, Southfield, Mich.
Client: Lawrence Technological University
Architect: Mophosis, Culver City, Calif. . Thom Mayne, FAIA (design director); Brandon Welling (project principal); Aleksander Tamm-Seitz (project architect); Chris Eskew, Michael Nesbit, Atsushi Sugiuchi (project team); Cory Brugger, Assoc. AIA, (advanced technology); Natalie Abbott, Carmelia Chiang, Sam Clovis, Thomas Day, Ryan Docken, Bart Gillespie, Mauricio Gomez, Parham Hakimi, Jonathan Kaminsky, Hunter Knight, Sarah Kott, Katie MacDonald, Nicole Meyer, Derrick Whitmire, Pablo Zunzunegui (project assistants); Jasmine Park, Nathan Skrepcinski, Sam Tannenbaum (visualization)
Executive Architect/Landscape Architect: Albert Kahn Associates, Detroit . Alan H. Cobb, FAIA (principal-in-charge); Michael Giovanni, AIA, Megan Martin-Campbell (project design and laboratory planning); Robert Hubbard, AIA, Ken Herbart, AIA (project architect); Gregory Gertsen, Gary Collins (structural engineers); John Cole, Scott Kemp, Oscar Cobb (project mechanical engineers); Kevin Jones (project electrical engineer); William Howerth (project IT engineer); Chris Trupiano, Tania Swider (project interior design); Stephen White, Riccardo Pappini (landscape architects); Joyce Vander Weide, Jeff Gaines, AIA, Brian Eady, Chapin Cornillaud, Breanne May, Robert Vander Werff (project assistants)
Structural/M/E/P/FP Engineer of Record: Albert Kahn Associates
Civil Engineering: PEA
Cost Estimator: Kirk Value Planners
Geotechnical: The Mannick & Smith Group
Size: 36,700 square feet
Cost: $13.47 million
Project DescriptionFROM THE ARCHITECTS:
The A. Alfred Taubman Engineering, Architecture, and Life Sciences Complex is a new 36,700 SF academic laboratory building for Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, that provides advanced facilities for robotics engineering, biomedical engineering, life sciences and related programs. The design of the building evolved around opportunities to enhance connectivity at multiple scales – between the school’s various engineering and design disciplines, previously housed in separate buildings, as well as within existing and future regions of the campus.
The Taubman Complex is among the first buildings constructed in LTU’s major expansion and renovation effort, which will add new campus regions, buildings, and amenities to serve the university’s growing student population. To support this effort, the Complex is designed as an “extrudable section: ” an occupiable bar that can be extended in phases to accommodate growth while maintaining the function and design integrity of the building. The spine of the bar is formed by two floors of laboratories, which look out into an open ex space that runs the length of the building. This flex space is the collaborative heart of the Taubman Complex, providing an expansive and re-configurable hall for informal discussions, pin-up critique sessions, and lectures. Clerestory glazing fills the flex space with light diffused through an ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) scrim along the east and west facades; in the evening, this scrim becomes illuminated by back lighting.
Beyond adding flexible collaborative spaces and laboratory facilities, opportunities were identified to use the form of the building to establish a new axis for the school that would enhance links between the buildings and act as a bridge to future regions of the campus. The bridge-like form of the building defines the periphery of the campus and enhances the presence and view of the University from the adjacent major roadway. The Complex is linked to neighboring buildings by lifted bridges, framing a new grand entrance and gateway to the University. Breaching the linear form of the building, a carbon- fiber circulation “orb” contains the main staircase and marks entry to the building, while creating a focal point for the University quad.
The precedent for a light-filled, extendable building design is rooted in the history of our teaming Executive Architect- Engineering firm, Albert Kahn Associates, and of Detroit as the center for American innovation in engineering. Albert Kahn was the primary architect for an emerging automobile industry; his commissions included numerous state-of-the-art factories for Henry Ford, which employed a revolutionary structural system engineered by Kahn and his brother Julius to allow for the creation of open span, brightly lit assembly floors. The success of these buildings depended on a repeated system of structural ribs and clerestory windows– an efficient, modular formula that could be expanded and extended to whatever size necessary to accommodate the program within. A century later, Kahn’s innovations are revived in a new expansion for Lawrence Technological University designed to offer flexible laboratory facilities for evolving research and disciplines.