The story of the Blizard Building started in 2001 when laboratory specialists AMEC decided to bid for the contract to build new facilities for London’s Queen Mary University. The client wanted a unique, arresting building that would attract scientists. Colin Gilmore-Merchant, then AMEC project manager, decided to put the project to Will Alsop. The client also wanted a building that would facilitate work-sharing and staff flexibility. As research premises must have tight security, however, the only way to meet the brief was to isolate the laboratories from the rest of the public-use building. Which meant putting them on one level - in this case, a lower ground floor occupying the whole ground plan. To overcome the feeling of being underground, a huge glass pavilion was built over approximately half the laboratory area. In addition, strips of screenprinted structural glass were inserted in the paving along the technical building known as The Wall of Plant, flooding the underground areas with natural light. The Wall of Plant contains all the equipment and service plant required by the laboratories. It is directly accessed from the rear so that maintenance technicians do not have to enter areas reserved for scientists. The ground floor houses the Nucleus Café, reception, Auditorium lobby and staircase leading to the glazed pedestrian bridge, which in turn leads to The Centre of the Cell, a space set aside for interactive exhibitions and teaching activities. The glass pavilion encloses a vast empty space. Two wide “landings” on separate levels, serving as write-up areas and offices for scientists, look down onto the laboratories below. Four independent pods “float” in this airy volume. Two of them - Spikey and The Cloud - are 40-seat seminar rooms. The third is the already mentioned Centre of the Cell. The fourth, open-topped Mushroom pod is a meeting and greeting area linked to the laboratories by a helical staircase.
The building is a continuous flow of environments with nothing to obstruct the view. Almost all the building relies on natural daylight although there is back-up lighting consisting of reflectors trained on large prism disks hanging from the pavilion ceiling. Colour is another key feature. The accessible areas under the glass pavilion have magenta red wall-to-wall carpeting while the colour scheme of the reception and Nucleus Café is bold orange. The 400-seat auditorium, accessible directly from the reception, has rich green carpets and upholstery. Dotted here and there are a few bright red chairs, “like poppies in a field”, comments Colin Gilmore-Merchant. The building is particularly striking at night. Moving images are projected on the Wall of Plant while flood lighting dramatically offsets the expanse of artwork panels by Bruce McLean.