Most of the massive structure is not even visible from the entrance, yet from within it is flooded with natural light and offers stunning views of the Potomac River and the countryside beyond. Internationally renowned architect Rafael Viñoly designed the structure to conform to the contours of the land. The result is a building at once entirely modern yet wholly inseparable from its natural setting. That concept was also a surprise for Viñoly. He started out with an entirely different vision.
HHMI: AT THE GROUNDBREAKING, YOU SAID, “NATURE IS THE CENTERPIECE OF RESEARCH AT JANELIA FARM AND THE BUILDING FOLLOWS THAT IDEA.” EXPLAIN NATURE’S PLACE IN YOUR DESIGN.
RV: We came up with this notion of integrating the building entirely into the landscape. When complete, the site should remain essentially “untouched.” Everything in this idea led us to enhance the view of nature. From an architectural perspective, things like the enormous amount of glass, the rooftop gardens, and placing the offices and corridors towards the open view work, but they are also completely interconnected with this idea. The structure is basically a series of steps terraced into the hillside and then a series of environments that undulate along the length of the hill's curves where scientists work in connection with nature. I think that's a pretty powerful idea. The entire composition looks like a natural thing. It looks like it has been there for many, many years.
HHMI: HOW DID YOU GENERATE THIS IDEA OF USING THE EXISTING LANDSCAPE AS THE GUIDING CONCEPT FOR THE BUILDING?
RV: At the beginning we had exactly the opposite idea; we planned to impose a grid on the landscape. Then we had an interview with [HHMI architect] Bob McGhee (see related story "Let the Science Begin") and the others in the competition interview committee, and they told us, `You're completely wrong.' I didn't think so at the time, but the critique was so good it forced me to challenge our assumptions about how a building that satisfies the Institute's objectives would look. This is so typical in architecture—really in life—that you try to do something exactly against the current until you realize you'd better go the other way. The final concept proved to be amazingly self-supporting. You know you're on a good track in architecture when you don't need to push too much. The thing sails on its own.
Photo: Paul Fetters