Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics: an environment to foster scientific collaboration

This post was written by Andrea Paoletti

Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is a centre that provides a multi-disciplinary environment to foster scientific collaboration in research areas of cosmology, particle physics, quantum foundations, quantum gravity, quantum information, superstring theory, and related disciplines. I have’nt visited the institute yet but two friends of mine told me about that and I found it very inspiring from an innovative and collaborative design point of view. It is composed of two parts. The original building designed by Saucier + Perrotte architectes completed in 2006 and a major expansion designed by Teeple Architects and completed in 2011.

Riding the controversial line between public and private space, the original research institute attempts to subvert the usual hard thresholds established by private enterprise in the public realm. The design is takes inspiration from the wide-ranging, hard to define concepts that make up the subject matter of theoretical physics, at once micro- and macro-cosmic, rich in information and of indeterminate form and substance. Between city and park, the Perimeter Institute expands and inhabits the improbable space of the line separating the two. The building defines the secure zones of the Institute’s facilities within a series of parallel glass walls, embedded in an erupting ground plane that reveals a large reflecting pool. The north façade, facing the park across this pool, reveals the Institute as an organism, a microcosm of discrete elements. The south façade, facing the city across train tracks and the city’s main arterial road, presents the Institute as a unified but transforming entity, of enigmatic scale and content. Entry to the Institute is possible from both the north, along the reflecting pool, and the south, under the new ground plane.

The interior of the Institute is organized around two central spaces, the main hall on the ground floor and the garden on the first.

The circulation corridors running east-west are positioned between the opalescent glass planes, which are occasionally punctured and shifted to reveal views across the interior space of the hall. Vertical circulation climbs these walls, tendrils of ground that run from the garden through the building.

The garden – nature emerging from the vacuum – is crossed by three bridges that puncture all the planes, as well as the north and south façades. Two wings of offices are separated by a glass-roofed atrium and an exterior courtyard. Three bridges span the exterior courtyard, to encourage easy continuance of scientific discussion for researchers, connecting the building on the second and third levels. Each bridge culminates in an informal meeting area, overlooking either the exterior garden or the atrium, that are visually accessible from alternate floors, enabling resident researchers to quickly assess who is in the building throughout the day or night. There are 44 single research offices, together with larger shared offices, to accommodate additional researchers, and 15 administrative offices. The building is flooded with natural light from the generous amount of glass throughout the building and from the central atrium. The facility also contains a two-story library, two seminar rooms, a large lecture theater, seating 210, and a bistro with a rooftop deck, located above the lecture theater at the eastern edge of the building.

To ensure a warm and personal atmosphere throughout, six wood-burning fireplaces are placed in lounges, informal meeting areas and the bistro. Natural light is extremely important. Plentiful, comfortable interaction areas, where scientists can deliberately and spontaneously meet to discuss developing ideas, are essential. Areas for quiet contemplation, calculation and reflection are equally necessary. There is a harmonious balance of private spaces, quiet public spaces, formal meeting areas (such as seminar rooms and an auditorium) and informal meeting areas (lounges, open gathering spots).

On the ground floor are fitness facilities and a squash court. In addition to its primary purpose, the lecture theatre plays host to regular musical performances, while the atrium is an ideal for rotating artistic exhibitions to provide a stimulating cultural experience for the research staff.

In the Stephen Hawking Centre, new expansion, the design strategy for this challenging program focused on creating ideal spaces for research – quiet spaces for contemplative thought, which are balanced with spaces designed to encourage and facilitate interaction among scientists, researchers and graduate students.

There was a strong desire from the entire project team that the expansion be contiguous with the existing facility. It was understood early on that the expansion and existing building would need to interact to function as a singular whole.

The design solution hovers the new addition over an existing reflecting pool and parking garage roof, such that is occupies virtually no additional site area. The architects worked closely with PI to ensure that the new addition connects directly into existing research space, ensuring seamless connectivity between the existing structure and the Stephen Hawking Centre.

The Executive Director at PI, Dr. Neil Turok, called for the new Centre to integrate aspiring young physicists into an exciting learning environment to work with and learn from established researchers as well as for the creation of a research environment that would foster an intensive and creative interaction amongst staff scientists, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.

An extremely unique design solution was derived to achieve these goals, which included: relocating the current Black Hole Bistro to the ground level from the 4th floor, this space is ideal to facilitate planned and spontaneous encounters immediately upon arrival into the building – staff expressed this desire to the architectural team as they wanted more opportunities for interactive discussions to occur outside of offices and meeting rooms; creating three central pods of research, postdoctoral and graduate offices to support independent research, while enabling grads to have a visual link to their research partners; situating interaction areas at half levels between floors, both to bring researchers from different departments together and to create an acoustically separated public interaction zone.

The final design solutions involve a highly energy efficient and cost effective VRF system that is equipped to ensure acoustic privacy in all research spaces. This dual mode system also provides natural ventilation during the warmer seasons, ensuring user comfort. The Centre is partially clad with “Gold Glass”, which provides protection from solar radiation and reduces heat loss in the winter months.

You can have more details about the collaborative aspects here, and here.

Photographs 1-7 © Marc Cramer

Photographs 8-14  © Jens Langens

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