Allen Institute For Brain Science

Allen Institute For Brain Science

Labs dedicated to mapping the human brain are tucked neatly behind a glass curtain wall and a restored terra-cotta facade.

A couple of weeks before its grand opening, the Allen Institute for Brain Science in South Lake Union opened its doors for a tour with the architects from Perkins+Will. Since September, the Allen Institute has consolidated its staff into its new 272,000-square-foot building, and over 300 employees moved in from four Seattle buildings—three in the Fremont neighborhood and one in Eastlake.

The petal-like design by the firm’s Seattle office echoes the institute’s recently centralized arrangement. Labs radiate out from a central skylit atrium, interspersed with offices, meeting spaces, and science support. There are no wings, which is typical in science and research facilities.

“We wanted to bring people from the corners of the offices, through the science, and into the middle,” Kay Kornovich, managing director of Perkins+Will Seattle, said. Each petal can be reconfigured and adapted based on future needs or purposes. It’s easy to imagine the space shifting, with movable walls reconfigured to accommodate more employees (there is room to grow to just under 500 employees) or different experiments and research projects.

Philanthropist and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen started the institute in 2003 with a $100 million donation. Vulcan Inc., also a Paul Allen–owned company, developed the building. (Vulcan owns the land beneath the under-construction Amazon towers and has projects as diverse as the London Hospital Club in England.) The private and independent research project was founded on a ten-year scientific plan and has to galvanize team science to map the human brain.

Laboratory spaces on every floor feature glass walls: one end looks inward to the atrium, the other faces the perimeter corridors and views of Lake Union beyond. “That was one of the earliest goals—to see through the building as much as possible,” Kornovich said. There is a view from almost anywhere. Pathways encircle every level, with direct circulation routes ringing the atrium core and longer scenic walkways along the perimeter of the building.

Cantilevered pods for collaborative meetings extend into the atrium. “We left the pods to be a lot more low-tech, with soft seating,” said Paul Wohnoutka, senior director of operations at the Allen Institute.

In addition to the tech spaces, there are program areas dedicated to broad outreach and to bridging the gap between the general public and scientists. The ground floor houses the nonprofit Pivot Art + Culture—a striking, 3,000-square-foot white-walled gallery with polished concrete floors. Currently, it’s a clean backdrop to 20 works by a roster of big name international artists: Johannes Berger from Germany, Anish Kapoor from London, Ruben Pang of Singapore, Willem de Kooning, and Alberto Giacometti, among others, including four works from Paul Allen’s personal collection.

An auditorium on the first level is equipped with digital technology so that the Institute can stream science symposiums and other events for the public. The sixth floor features public spaces, a library, cafe with Knoll furniture, and a data center, lit in varying colors of LEDs.

Paul Allen was mostly hands-off. “We met with him three times,” said Kornovich. “He just wanted to monitor our progress,” explained Erik Mott, design principal at Seattle Perkins+Will, also on the tour. Mott said Allen focused on making sure the space was warm and there were places for art.

The institute incorporates 2,760 restored terra-cotta tiles from the facades of the former historic auto showrooms, the Ford and Pacific McKay buildings, which were moved to make way for the rerouting of Mercer Street.

The preserved tiles are a counterpoint to the facade’s giant digital media wall depicting shifting neuron images. Up close, the neuron images alternate, sometimes made up of zeros and ones, and other times, tiny arrows. “The city had a requirement for transparency, but the program wouldn’t really allow that, so this was a way to communicate something about what is happening inside,” said Wohnoutka.

Perkins+Will’s Kornovich reflected on the Allen Institute design. “I don’t know if you’d say it’s a prototype,” she said, noting the collaborative process. “I think it’s a new way of thinking about science first and then the architecture follows the thinking. And the architecture doesn’t drive the way [the scientists] work, it’s hopefully complementing the way they work.”

Terracotta Facades Restoration

Pioneer Masonry

Pacific McKay Plasterwork

Performance Contracting

Historic Wood Refinishing

Legacy Renovation

Terrazzo Flooring

North American Terrazzo

Courtesy of Perkins+Will / Hedrich Blessing