Harvard University Science and Engineering Complex
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Harvard University Science and Engineering Complex

De rerum natura

Behnisch Architekten

Harvard University Science and Engineering Complex
Edited By Luca Maria Francesco Fabris -

Fourteen years after winning the competition, Behnisch Architekten has now completed Harvard University’s new Science and Engineering Complex. As I have already said, and will continue to say, this German firm produces technical architecture that always finds a way of embracing the natural elements of a site, making them an integral part of the project in hand. Not only do they demonstrate that environment, technology and architecture can be melded, they also show that the aesthetic results can be equally excellent.

Here, once again, the practice has produced a complex state-of-the-art facility that seconds the natural order of things and where man’s technical expertise imitates and resonates with the best natural features of the site without forcing itself on the landscape in the name of heedless aseptic progress. More than ten years ago I defined Stefan Behnisch’s work as a new trend in architecture, dubbing it “techno-natural”. Over the years though, the firm has so refined its design prowess that these two “made-in-Behnisch” features have now blended into a single element. Which exempts us from the need to attribute labels! What they build is simply what contemporary architecture should be - and more especially, what can be achieved without yielding to compromise.

Located on the new Allston Campus in Boston on the banks of the Charles River across from the historic Harvard University, the Science and Engineering Complex (SEC) comprises an almost transparent two-story plinth that reaches southward as a staggered three-story terrace, creating a broad courtyard in scale with the surrounding urban fabric. Behind this low-lying fan-like volume rise the three main upper blocks connected by full-height recessed glazed columns.

With a surface area of some 49,000 sq. m, the SEC comprises classrooms, teaching labs and amenity spaces on the lower plinth floors while the offices and research labs of the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) occupy the three upper volumes rising from the broad base.

As with all Behnisch Architekten educational projects, the distribution system starts right from the initial open, semi-public level, reaching through all the lower levels accessible from the public street. The result is a honeycomb configuration of interconnected yet separate environments. In fact, it is not difficult to imagine the closed spaces of the auditorium, classrooms and ancillary environments as a series of cells - contiguous yet partitioned - pulsating with vibrant energy. Where they open out, they become common intermingling areas; where they taper, they resemble the narrow alleyways of Venice. The three upper blocks are also connected vertically by a full-height six-story atrium crossed at intervals by a series of overhead bridge connections - another immanent “Behnischian” feature. As a result, natural daylight streams into the building from the roof through to the ground floor as well as through the two full-height transparent outer skins on the southern façades.

The SEC has two kinds of research laboratory, each with its own specification protocol: wet labs, handling biological material, and dry, computer science labs. The modular, and hence highly flexible plan able to adapt to future spatial requirements, guarantees the highest certified safety standards as well as innovative energy-saving systems. Right from the design concept stage, the architects worked in partnership with consultant Transsolar and the future occupants to calculate the requisite ventilation rates - usually the highest energy-consumption factor of any science laboratory - and ensure appropriate air flows throughout the complex. In addition, the modular opaque and transparent panels forming the infills between the steel and cement structural frame provide excellent thermal performance. Manually operable elements also allow
occupant-controlled natural ventilation.

The projecting volumes containing the laboratories are protected by a second skin: a screen of 1.5 mm thick stainless steel panels produced by “hydroforming”, a manufacturing process used in the industrial parts and automotive industries. The panels are perforated as a function of their specific positioning on the façade so as to guarantee maximum shielding from the sun on the south side, especially in summer, and maximum diffused daylighting into the north-facing interiors. The overall effect is one of a secular arabesque, an exquisite blend of refined technology and aesthetics that makes for great architecture. Indeed, creating a holistic continuum combining technology, architecture and mechanicals is perhaps one of the project’s major qualities; it also aims at achieving sustainability certifications as demanded by Harvard University’s policy. Active chilled beams, radiant panels, manually operative window openings, an adiabatic air recirculation system, an efficient balance between natural and forced cooling, and the ingress of enough natural daylight to allow artificial illumination to be switched off everywhere in the building are the ingredients we are now used to seeing in a Behnisch Architekten project, but which never cease to amaze us.

Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Completion Date: 2021
Client: The President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gross Floor Area: 50,000 m2
Architect: Behnisch Architekten
Partners: Stefan Behnisch, Robert Matthew Noblett
Project Leaders: Christine Napolitano, Erik Hegre
Main Contractor: Turner Construction Company

Buro Happold
Landscape: Stephen Stimson Associates Landscape Architects
MEP, Fire Protection: van Zelm Heywood & Shadford - Façade: Knippers Helbig
Climate Engineering: Transsolar
Lighting: Bartenbach, Lam Partners
Laboratory Planners: Jacobs Laboratory Planning Group
Signage, Graphics: Ockert und Partner
Code: Code Red Consultants
LEED: Thorton Thomasetti

Ondaria Luminaires: Zumtobel Group

Text by Luca Maria Francesco Fabris, Politecnico di Milano - BUCEA Expert
Photography by Brad Feinknopf
Portrait image by David Matthiessen
All images courtesy of Behnisch Architekten

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