Institut des Sciences Moléculaires d’Orsay, Paris

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Circulation bags the best views at KAAN Architects’ Paris institute, while in quiet space deep inside the building is reserved for serious study

The library forms the focus of the atrium linking the circulation walkways.
The library forms the focus of the atrium linking the circulation walkways. Credit: Fernando Guerra

In trying to explain the design genesis of its new Institut des Sciences Moléculaires d’Orsay (ISMO) in Paris, Dutch firm KAAN Architects’ founder Kaas Kaan proves his point by citing a domestic scheme of the firms which is, in plan, its antithesis. Tilburg University’s Self Study & Education Centre has a social function and runs all its programme around the perimeter, leaving a central zone, with its sunken auditorium, open for public interaction. But ISMO, merging this French institute’s faculties into one entity, is a very different beast altogether. Dedicated to theoretical and practical scientific research, the idea here is that the building’s centre is the focus for concentrated study – away from prying eyes – and its south perimeter, with views over a verdant campus, becomes the public forum. And up at roof level, above its central reception and library space, floats the auditorium. Now why is that?

  • The cell-like trabeated facade in fact masks all the horizontal study room access corridors.
    The cell-like trabeated facade in fact masks all the horizontal study room access corridors. Credit: Fernando Guerra
  • Two central courtyards allow light into study room cells.
    Two central courtyards allow light into study room cells. Credit: Fernando Guerra
  • The north elevation is a completely glazed facade revealing laboratory spaces.
    The north elevation is a completely glazed facade revealing laboratory spaces. Credit: Fernando Guerra
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‘At Tilburg the auditorium was well used; we even glazed it to connect with the public space; but here it has far more limited use and doesn’t contribute to the daily life of the facility,’ explains Kaan. ‘Here we wanted to keep the ground floor completely open to receive researchers and allow them to interact and socialise. The same goes for the perimeter circulation. Study is an isolated activity, and good things can come from a chance encounter with another discipline.’ In a similar way, the library space, formerly sequestrated in the faculties, has here been transformed into an atrium. An extension of the public space, it links to  the corridors that connect to the central study cells, and offers views via balconies down to the reception area.

It’s almost counter-intuitive when a building of loadbearing concrete – to deal with the sensitive scientific equipment housed here – has a trabeated facade that evokes a cell-like quality at odds with the horizontality of the circulation that runs behind it. But Kaan isn’t bothered by this – he’s just playing games with the formal language. It’s the reason why the north elevation, stacked with laboratory spaces, is like a fishbowl – completely glazed to reveal the internal workings to the campus behind. But even this is a conceit. In section they connect down to the lower ground floor where a bank of other labs, equal in volume, are hidden from view. 

Internally, the language of the laboratory is expressed everywhere. Hygienic white surfaces of painted concrete, plasterboard or metal abound. Balustrades are glass, as are the doors of the study cells that face onto the public corridor. ‘In effect, every researcher has a 2m x 1m window onto the landscape; it’s just experienced via the corridor,’ says Kaan. And that, replete with bright, white cast resin floor, is illuminated by the strong south light and registers the passing of the day via the deep shadow of the columns moving across it, like some in-situ Newtonian experiment. 

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