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The Unifying Power of Lafayette's Rockwell Integrated Sciences Center
Architect Magazine
Washington, DC, USA
Media, Architecture, Interior Design
Date Published: 
Architecture, Interior Design, Atrium, Collaboration, Easton, Pennsylvania, Biology, Computer Science, Environmental Science
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2020-12-27 23:15:43
2020-12-27 23:24:16
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Robert Benson
Payette relied on an signature interior design move to help make the building a collaborative center for the campus.

The Boston-based firm Payette has reimagined the idea of the science building with its design for the Rockwell Integrated Sciences Center at Lafayette College. The new building, which opened in fall 2019, serves three departments at the college—biology, computer science, and environmental science—across five floors, so it was a given that faculty, researchers, and students would be split across multiple levels. “The design is about how connected they could be,” says Payette’s project manager, Mark Oldham, AIA.

But in an innovative twist, the architects also tried to make connections with the rest of the campus. Located in Easton, a small town in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Lafayette has recently increased its enrollment by 20%—to 2,600 students—putting a strain on study space at the library and other buildings. The Rockwell project, certified LEED Platinum, was a chance to solve that problem. “It needs to serve more than the science community,” says Payette's principal-in-charge, Robert J. Schaeffner, FAIA. “It’s about how people learn and share through different cohorts, and the studying and meeting that happen outside the classroom.” He adds: “Students will study anywhere there’s a beautiful place to study.”

At 102,000-square-feet, Rockwell is one of the largest buildings on Lafayette’s 100-acre campus, yet it manages to fit the scale and texture of the existing facilities. The new center presents a modest brick-and-glass face–just three stories tall and 52 feet wide–to the college’s historic Anderson Courtyard. The architects deftly concealed much of the building’s bulk using a steep slope at the western edge of the campus. In fact, the center's overall footprint is small in relation to its total size, creating what Oldham calls a “mini-tower.”

The L-shaped plan is organized around the Vertical Commons, a four-story-tall gathering space that the architects wanted to serve as a kind of “mixing chamber” for faculty and students. The signature element is a stair, wrapped in a “unifying ribbon,” that provides clear interior circulation and also serves as the principal spatial experience of the building. Based on M.C. Escher’s famous images of spiraling faces, the ribbon ties each part of the stair into one integrated central piece while allowing the individual floors to retain their own identity. “Often atriums are void of character and intimacy,” Oldham says. “We wanted to occupy it like a treehouse.”

The atrium isn’t large—just 20 feet deep and only about 50 feet long—so “what looks like an extravagant spatial event is done very economically,” Oldham says. Payette increased the perceived size of the multi-story space by spanning between interior and exterior with a glazed wall, with views that extend up and down, inside and out. “You get these nice lateral views diagonally,” Schaeffner says.

Virtual reality was critical to developing the stair’s complex geometry. “If we hadn’t had VR, it would have been dumber and more of a one-liner,” Oldham says. The VR tool allowed Payette to choreograph precisely the small but complex spaces between the stair and the amoeba-shaped openings, which change in size and configuration from floor to floor. “How do you balance intimacy and the persona of the school, which is so personal, with an idea that is unifying and grand?” is how Schaeffner defines the design challenge.

Payette managed to do just that—to design a microcosm of Lafayette College, providing spaces that accommodate teaching and research across the humanities and sciences while deftly accommodating different types of people. The building includes dedicated classrooms and labs as well as a wide variety of large and small gathering spaces deployed throughout the atrium and the other circulation spaces. “Depending on how introverted you are, if you’re gregarious, if you have to do some personal contemplative work or some group work—[the center] seems to always have a spot for somebody,” Schaeffner says.

Organizations Mentioned: (2)
Lafayette College
Easton, Pennsylvania, USA
Higher Ecuation
Boston, Massachusetts, USA