Science meets architecture at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester

A street level view of the building which is off rectangular shape and has a glass fascade. .
Designed by Jestico + Whiles, the new National Graphene Institute is situated in the University of Manchester campus
(Image credit: Hufton + Crow)

One doesn't have to look too far beneath the compact, modern façade of the new £61m National Graphene Institute (opens in new tab) to discover a thoughtful expression of the ideal that education and scientific research should be an open, transparent process. 

Occupying a corner plot on the University of Manchester's science quarter (where graphene was first isolated in 2004, earning its founders the Nobel Prize in Physics six years later), the five-storey building was designed by London- and Prague-based Jestico + Whiles (opens in new tab), while CH2M Hill (opens in new tab) helmed the design for the specialist labs.

The institute's ambitious goal to be a world-class research and incubator centre dedicated to the development of graphene - made from a single layer of atom carbons, the world's thinnest material is 200 times stronger than steel - is subtly and cleverly telegraphed on its double-layered facade. To wit, the inner layer is clad with weather- and thermal-proofed cladding, while an outer layer is constructed from 1,875 black mirror stainless steel panels, each of which contains thousands of perforations that make up the equations used in graphene research.

To achieve optimal vibration conditions, the main clean room is built into a lower ground floor, but rather than hide machinery and personnel in an artificially lit, enclosed bunker, the architects have cut through the side elevation to angle the ceiling upwards so that from the east-side street level, the public can look directly into the naturally-lit room and literally observe the ground-breaking work being done. 

This unusual sense of openness is paired with a bent towards freewheeling creativity. Internal lab walls, for instance, are covered with black PVC that, with special chalk pens, double as blackboards. 

Given the importance of the research project, the institute is, at around 8,000 sq m, relatively compact, but the space is well-used not least for its comprehensive suite of laser, optical, metrology and chemical labs, offices, a second clean room, and seminar room that opens onto a roof terrace and garden of grass and wildflowers.

A street level view of a carp park surrounded by trees and the Institute in the backdrop.

Its compact form is deceiving - the building includes ample space for research in an unusually transparent model

(Image credit: Hufton + Crow)

A street level view of the building from a different angle.

The structure's outer layer is made of 1,875 black mirror stainless steel panels, each of which contains thousands of perforations referring to the equations used in graphene research

(Image credit: Hufton + Crow)

Inside the Institute, a first floor view overlooking a white-spacious seating area with a spiral staircase and glass windows

The interior is bright and airy, while specialist labs were designed by CH2M Hill

(Image credit: Hufton + Crow)

A male walking down a white stairwell.

Given the importance of the research project, the institute is, at around 8000sqm, relatively compact

(Image credit: Hufton + Crow)

Looking along a corridor with pipes on the ground. To the right and left are windows for rooms that look like laboratories.

To achieve optimal vibration conditions, the main clean room is built into a lower ground floor

(Image credit: Hufton + Crow)

A seminar room with tables and chairs that looks across to a roof terrace.

The five-storey building includes a comprehensive suite of laser, optical, metrology and chemical labs, offices, two clean rooms, and a seminar room that opens onto a roof terrace and garden of grass and wildflowers

(Image credit: Hufton + Crow)

INFORMATION

Photography: Hufton + Crow

ADDRESS

The University of Manchester
Booth St E
Manchester M13 9PL

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Daven Wu is the Singapore Editor at Wallpaper*. A former corporate lawyer, he has been covering Singapore and the neighbouring South-East Asian region since 1999, writing extensively about architecture, design, and travel for both the magazine and website. He is also the City Editor for the Phaidon Wallpaper* City Guide to Singapore.