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 collegeâ€”biology, computer science, and environmental scienceâ€”across five floors, so it was a given that faculty, researchers, and students would be split across multiple levels. â€śThe design is about how connected they could be,â€ť says Payetteâ€™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 Pennsylvaniaâ€™s Lehigh Valley, Lafayette has recently increased its enrollment by 20%â€”to 2,600 studentsâ€”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. â€śIt needs to serve more than the science community,â€ť says Payette's principal-in-charge, Robert J. Schaeffner, FAIA. â€śItâ€™s about how people learn and share through different cohorts, and the studying and meeting that happen outside the classroom.â€ť He adds: â€śStudents will study anywhere thereâ€™s a beautiful place to study.â€ť
At 102,000-square-feet, Rockwell is one of the largest buildings on Lafayetteâ€™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 faceâ€“just three stories tall and 52 feet wideâ€“to the collegeâ€™s historic Anderson Courtyard. The architects deftly concealed much of the buildingâ€™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 â€śmini-tower.â€ť
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 â€śmixing chamberâ€ť for faculty and students. The signature element is a stair, wrapped in a â€śunifying ribbon,â€ť that provides clear interior circulation and also serves as the principal spatial experience of the building. Based on M.C. Escherâ€™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. â€śOften atriums are void of character and intimacy,â€ť Oldham says. â€śWe wanted to occupy it like a treehouse.â€ť
The atrium isnâ€™t largeâ€”just 20 feet deep and only about 50 feet longâ€”so â€śwhat looks like an extravagant spatial event is done very economically,â€ť 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. â€śYou get these nice lateral views diagonally,â€ť Schaeffner says.
Virtual reality was critical to developing the stairâ€™s complex geometry. â€śIf we hadnâ€™t had VR, it would have been dumber and more of a one-liner,â€ť 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. â€śHow do you balance intimacy and the persona of the school, which is so personal, with an idea that is unifying and grand?â€ť is how Schaeffner defines the design challenge.
Payette managed to do just thatâ€”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. â€śDepending on how introverted you are, if youâ€™re gregarious, if you have to do some personal contemplative work or some group workâ€”[the center] seems to always have a spot for somebody,â€ť Schaeffner says.