AstraZeneca’s Discovery Centre is ‘a landscape of different situations’

AstraZeneca’s Discovery Centre is ‘a landscape of different situations’

Tour AstraZeneca’s brand new research and development hub, The Discovery Centre, designed by Herzog & de Meuron in Cambridge, UK

As you approach The Discovery Centre in Cambridge, designed by Herzog & Meuron for pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, the building clearly stands out in its immediate surroundings. Relatively low, finely carved and elegant-looking, this new research and development hub, part of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus (CBC), is located in a part of town that is currently in intense development – the Cambridge Southern Fringe Area. Modern on the inside, subtle on the outside, its design credentials cleverly belie its size. 

This, along with its need for flexibility, were the key drivers for the design, explains Herzog & Meuron partner Stefan Marbach: ‘We wanted to consciously keep the building low, at three floors, to ensure there are easy connections within. Because of the round shape, it never feels too big. At the same time, it’s a landscape of different situations.’

The Discovery Centre has been in the works since 2013, when British-Swedish multinational AstraZeneca commissioned the leading Swiss architecture studio for a hub that would consolidate its various research facilities and innovation labs. The building now includes these as well as offices, meeting spaces, a conference centre, an auditorium, a café and a restaurant.

AstraZeneca building champions transparency and light

shining and reflective exterior of AstraZeneca’s Discovery Centre by Herzog de Meuron

Part of the brief was to create a ‘porous’ structure, a building that can be embedded in the local community and landscape; and The Discovery Centre hopes to achieve just that. Designed in a loosely circular form – or rather, perhaps more accurately, a triangular floorplan with rounded edges – it contains a green central courtyard that will remain open and accessible to the public, aiming perhaps to bust the reputation that sees science labs as more opaque, mysterious, insular places. Outside the building’s strict perimeter, lush architectural gardens, dotted by artwork, sprawl outwards and it’s hard to tell where the centre ends and the public realm begins. Visitors and passers-by can sit on the lawns, wherever.

Inside, with the exception of lab areas (which are cleverly designed to be ‘plug-and-play’ for utmost flexibility, Marbach explains), the interior is mostly occupied by open-plan workspaces. ‘Light and transparency were key elements in the design,’ Marbach notes. Bringing natural light deep into the floorplate was a key driver for Herzog & de Meuron, which opened up views throughout the space, added glass partitions and punctured holes to connect floors, in order to enhance the idea of collaboration and cross-pollination between departments within AstraZeneca. 

The choice of materials clearly defines different areas in the building. There is natural stone for the entrances; rough sawn solid oak for the sculptural main stairs and the inner ring area; and carpet for the offices and other workspace floors. Ducts and services are hidden under the floor in most areas, but are exposed, hanging from the ceiling, in the laboratories, signifying the change in use. Smart ventilation recycles the air inside frequently and helps keep temperatures stable. 

aerial of AstraZeneca’s Discovery Centre by Herzog de Meuron

A sawtooth roof allows light to stream through openings, and continues the theme of the sawtooth, high-performance glass façade, which helps break down the overall volume. This feature also abstractly references the historical architecture of Cambridge colleges (in a similar way that the central courtyard hints at a contemporary version of the university quadrant). 

The building has just been inaugurated by HRH Prince Charles, who highlighted the structure’s net-zero approach, citing his recently launched Terra Carta Seal, bestowed to private sector companies that distinguish themselves for their sustainability efforts. Indeed, sleek and technologically advanced, the structure also features some strong sustainable architecture credentials, such as the use of geothermal energy, recycled rainwater and smart use of natural light and shading. It’s an approach fitting of the building – with its high-spec research and high-level controlled environments – which is home to some of the world’s most cutting-edge science. §

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