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This article by Peter Mladineo was prepared for the April 30, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Can Bold Architecture Help Cure Cancer?
Last fall Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman
made a bold prediction — that the new genomics building on campus
would be so unique in its design, form, and function that it would
produce major advances in the study of genetics, including cancer
breakthroughs — within 10 years’ time.
Tilghman, a noted molecular biologist with a PhD in biochemistry from
Temple University and a strong teaching reputation at Princeton, issued
this bold prediction for the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative
Genomics — the hybrid department she helped found — at
the Princeton Center for Photonics and Optoelectronic Materials’ annual
research review. Founding director of the institute, Tilghman said
it represents "simply a sea change" in bio-genetics. This
A few months later, the strange yet appealing building that is home
to the innovative Lewis-Sigler Institute, the Carl C. Icahn Laboratory,
opened on Washington Road. To be directed by David Botstein, one of
the brains behind the Human Genomic Project, the institute brings
biologists, geneticists, computer scientists, neurobiologists, and
physicists into a melting pot environment with the aim of promoting
a multidisciplinary approach to biological research. Its formal opening
is Thursday, May 8, at 2 p.m., with a symposium on Friday, May 9,
at 3 p.m.
The Icahn Laboratory is the latest eye-popping design on the Princeton
campus by renowned New York architect Rafael Vinoly. While the reviews
are mixed on the building’s exterior appearance, there is one area
of significant agreement among its occupants: All fear they may have
to stand in line to use the facility’s handsome interior as soon as
word gets out about the place. The sweeping lines of its two-story
glass-walled atrium offer the type of classy meeting spot that is
nowhere provided in Princeton’s new, multi-million dollar Frist Campus
It is fair to say that, in terms of both form and function, there
probably aren’t too many labs like this anywhere south of, say, the
The $45 million, 98,000 square-foot laboratory is located across Washington
Road from Jadwin Hall, and a cantilevered second-story conference
room is visible from the road. Overlooking playing fields, it completes
the ellipse formed by the two new dormitories on the southernmost
end of the campus, and it is the third building for Princeton’s burgeoning
presence in molecular biology. Architecturally noteworthy neighbors,
the Lewis Thomas Laboratory for molecular biology, and the George
Schultz Laboratories, both with exterior designs by Robert Venturi
(Class of ’47), preceded the Icahn Laboratory in 1986 and 1993 respectively.
The building is funded in part by a $20 million gift from the Icahn
Family Foundation. Icahn (pronounced eye-con) majored in philosophy
at Princeton, Class of 1957, and began his career as a stockbroker
in 1961. Now one of the best-known figures in American business and
finance, Icahn is president and CEO of his own firm, Icahn Associates,
which he started in 1968. His investment firm specializes in real
estate development, oil and gas, railcar leasing and manufacturing,
and technology firms.
The institute itself is named in honor of two members of Princeton’s
Class of 1955, Peter B. Lewis and Paul Sigler. Lewis, chairman and
CEO of the Progressive Corporation, one of the nation’s largest auto
insurers, made a $35 million gift to launch the scientific programs
within the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. Paul Sigler,
Lewis’s long-time friend and roommate at Princeton, was one of the
world’s leading structural biologists before his untimely death three
The most striking feature of the new building is its elliptical, glass-walled
atrium. A wide, colonnade-like covered outdoor walkway is lined with
31 painted aluminum louvers that rotate slightly every 10 minutes
to block the glass atrium from direct sun. This is accomplished by
hydraulic pumps and jacks (one each per louver) driven by a computer
program that simulates the position of the sun. Shadows left by the
louvers are also supposed to evoke the double-helix structure of DNA.
Behind the arc of the glass atrium, with its expansive public space
and daytime cafe, lie the building’s glass-fronted offices and labs.
An abundance of natural light flows through the halls, even on cloudy
days. The laboratories are contained in four blocks on two levels,
with the west and east blocks connected on both levels by the atrium.
If the direction of genomic research should change, the modular walls
can be moved, and there are nine-foot catwalks above the ceilings
so that utilities can be reconfigured easily.
The facility is a far cry from the university’s more historic, labyrinthine
buildings, with shadowy corridors leading to cramped academic offices.
"The inside — the lightness and the space — is rather
invigorating," says Jim Broach, a molecular biologist. "It
looks like a place where you should have great thoughts." Broach
is the institute’s acting director, awaiting the arrival in July of
director David Botstein. He is now at Stanford (see page 46).
Broach’s colleague, neurobiologist John Hopfield, is similarly intrigued
by the building’s enlightened interior and its communal feel. "The
generous public space is really going to help interactions between
people, interactions with laboratories that see each other, that aren’t
isolated down long corridors of a building somewhere," he says.
However, the biologists say, there will be a minimum of scientists
bumping into each other with their lab goggles on and test tubes in
hand — outside of the common areas.
"The labs themselves are still discrete. It’s only sitting down
over a cup of coffee or over lunch that you’re supposed to bump into
somebody, have great thoughts, and have the sparks fly," says
One place where these sparks may be generated is within
a sculptural structure in the atrium that looks rather like a large
iron blob. An iron, turtle-shell like carapace — an enormous hollow
structure — is lined with wood and lit within. It houses a conference
table and chairs, and building managers report it is already a popular
site for meetings of students and faculty who don’t mind the aroma
of coffee and chicken pitas wafting in from the nearby cafe.
This sculpture is actually a model of a home by another renowned architect,
Frank O. Gehry, and was given by Lewis, the donor for the institute.
The sculpture is the model for Lewis’s house. The house was never
built, but its curved wall technology was put to use for Gehry’s landmark
Bilbao museum in Spain. That Lewis is a Gehry patron and University
trustee, and that he contributed $60 million for a new science library
across the street at Ivy Lane, may have influenced the university
to commission Gehry for the library’s design.
Across the atrium from the Gehry sculpture is a small, 64-seat lecture
theater with blond wood seats upholstered in black-and-white tweed.
A cylindrical structure stands in the atrium lined by a circular stair
leading up to a lounge that offers faux-futuristic furniture evocative
of the 1970s to the weary brain warrior.
The atrium and its many attractions are already becoming the word
on the campus. Popular for meetings by such groups as campus lacrosse
enthusiasts, the space was SRO with an audience of about 150 for a
March reading of Aristophanes’ bawdy drama "Lysistrata," an
internationally coordinated event protesting the war against Iraq.
Every cafe and lounge chair was occupied, along with a few rows of
folding chairs, and in typical fashion many students found themselves
seated on the atrium’s rock-hard epoxy terrazzo floor.
To the scientists who occupy the Icahn labs, this spells a worrisome
concept: waiting lists.
"There’s speculation that every eating club will want to hold
their formals here. From an esthetic point of view, this atrium has
become the most valuable piece of real estate on campus, at least
in the winter," one biologist suggests.
"When the word gets out there will be a lot of people wanting
to use it," says another.
Although architect Rafael Vinoly, a native of Uruguay, became well
known on campus when his Princeton Stadium was launched with fanfare
in 1999, he is best known now as part of the Think group, and one
of the architects responsible to the runner-up design for rebuilding
the World Trade Center. His design featured two open lattice structures
that sought to memorialize the lost Twin Towers on the New York skyline.
Founder of the international firm of Rafael Vinoly Architects, he
has had offices in Lower Manhattan since 1982. The firm now has offices
in New York, London, and Buenos Aires and a staff of more than 130.
He has built extensively throughout the United States and Latin America,
where he practiced for 18 years before immigrating to this country,
drawn, he says, to the ideals of the American democratic system and
the vitality, diversity, and optimism of New York City.
Vinoly was invited to submit a proposal on the labs based on the success
of the Princeton Stadium and his team’s past expertise in designing
laboratory buildings. His other, high-profile public projects include
the Tokyo International Forum, the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia,
Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, and the Boston Convention
Center. Vinoly was unavailable for comments on the Icahn Lab and refused
repeated requests for interviews.
The fact is, the building looks better from the inside than from the
outside. From Washington Road, the Carl Icahn lab’s wavy clay-red
north face greets the road like some sort of gargantuan Mesoamerican
oven. Students have already dubbed the building "the radiator,"
making it a worthy companion landmark to Venturi’s "Argyle sock"
"The building is unattractive from the road and from the other
building," one biologist says, adding that his main reservation
is with the external red clay hues, chosen to match the Venturi brickwork.
"It would be much more attractive with a sandstone," he says.
But the choice of color was not taken lightly. According to those
involved with the project, Vinoly had shrugged off around 50 other
color schemes before choosing this one.
Still, its occupants are more than enthusiastic about their new environs.
"There’s no doubt that it’s a beautiful building. All you have
to do is walk inside it," says Broach.
It’s no wonder that the same university that spawned
the great nuclear fusion experiment, the Princeton Plasma Physics
Laboratory, would also want, a few decades later, to fuse another
scientific advance — genomics and genetic research — with
biology and computer science. The players say one of the main tasks
of the Lewis-Sigler Institute is to remove the reductionist approach
taken in biology and optimize the potential for predictions derived
from the gaping reams of data yielded from various bio-genetic studies.
"Biology has been very successful over the last 30 years in focusing
in on learning more and more about less and less," says Broach.
"But when you focus in on the individual components of a biological
organism and learn more and more about that now in this post-genomic
era, when we have a complete genomic blueprint about all the parts
of an organism, we should be in a position to take a constructive
approach, in how to put these pieces together to learn how an organism
This kind of holistic thinking, he says, puts a disease as complex
as cancer on radar, and, with some hope and some luck, puts a solution
to the puzzle on the horizon.
"I think that we’re going to be able to understand (cancer) and
therefore cure it only when we can step back and try to see the disease
as a whole," says Broach. "To look at all the parts that are
affected and the sort of integrated approach that the institute promulgates
will, we hope, give us new tools to be able to do that."
Set your stopwatches for 10 years hence. In the meantime, beware the
lacrosse balls careening oddly off of the iron blob.
— Peter Mladineo
Carl Icahn Laboratory Atrium, Princeton University, 609-258-3000.
The dedication ceremony is Thursday, May 8, at 3 p.m., followed by
a lecture at 4:30 by director David Botstein on "Genomics, Biology,
Medicine, and Education" in the Lewis Thomas Laboratory Auditorium.
The dedication celebration continues Friday, May 9, at 2 p.m., with
talks by Lewis-Signer Institute faculty in the Lewis Thomas Auditorium.
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