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We all know how nice it is to have a beer with neighbors. And how one turns into two and before you know it, a serious conversation is going on. This social convention created the opportunity for Huygens & DiMella to be at the forefront of the biotech beginnings in Kendall Square. Here’s the story.

Two entrepreneurial professors at prestigious Cambridge universities were making new scientific discoveries and were becoming involved in what would eventually become the oldest independently-owned biotechnology company in the world: Biogen. In 1978, a group of the world’s most accomplished biologists gathered in Geneva, Switzerland to establish a new kind of pharmaceutical company founded with an emphasis on breakthroughs in biology. The company, named Biogen NV, began with its scientists working in small labs located around the world.  Two of the founding scientists were Dr. Phillip Sharp from MIT and Dr. Walter Gilbert from Harvard.

Peter Shaffer, at the time a young architect on the rise in Huygens & DiMella, was a neighbor and close friend of Dr. Phillip Sharp. Over several years and several beers, it was not uncommon for Phil and Peter, in their backyards, to be sharing what was happening in their respective careers. Peter recalls discussing the satisfaction that he was having helping a young computer system component start-up company – Teradyne Connection Systems – plan for their new corporate headquarters in Nashua, NH (previous post). Phil, on the other hand, attempted to explain, in layman’s terms, the new RNA gene splicing discoveries for which he would ultimately win the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1993. Peter notes, “Beer is a wonderful lubricant!”. After a few beers, Phil thought Peter understood gene splicing, and Peter thought he understood it as well.

Phil explained to Peter how he and Dr. Wally Gilbert, a 1980 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, were determined to move the locus of the small Geneva based Biogen NV to Cambridge, near MIT and Harvard, and rename the company Biogen.  They found a small two-story 24,000 square foot industrial property along Binney Street in Cambridge and hired Huygens & DiMella to develop conceptual sketches for a new corporate headquarters and research lab/manufacturing facility. Wally and Phil carried the preliminary sketches to Geneva, sold their idea to the Board, and convinced them to establish a US location for the company. Within the year, Biogen had established an initial presence in Kendall Square.

BIOGEN IBiogen I, as the original facility was called, was designed to demonstrate to Phil and Wally’s European colleagues that within a year Biogen could actually “exist” in the United States. In addition to becoming a functioning research laboratory and manufacturing facility, it was necessary for the newly renovated building to project an image of corporate substance. Another goal was to have its physical design have a European feel that would appeal to the Swiss origins of some of the founders. We understood that, if successful, this initial building would soon be followed by a larger, more permanent and technically complex facility within a year or two.

Left: Original Property. Right: Biogen I.

The design of Biogen’s first building in the United States was achieved as a total gut renovation of the existing two-story industrial building found by Dr. Sharp and Dr. Gilbert on Binney Street. To appeal to their European sensibilities, the exterior approach expressed a white stucco box seemingly floating above a base with dark green mullions to emphasize the shadows. The long horizontal strip windows in the floating white box recall the European modernism of Le Corbusier. The first floor was reserved for the corporate offices and a large conference room. As the ceiling height in the existing building was exceptionally low, a reflective linear ceiling was selected to give the illusion of a larger space. The back area of the first floor was reserved for future manufacturing space, including fermentation equipment. The second floor was reserved for clusters of flexible laboratories with as much common space for library/conference/coffee areas as possible to encourage interaction between scientific and administrative staffs. The goal was to eliminate the typical institutional atmosphere that Phil and Wally were accustomed to in their collegiate labs and to create a high quality corporate interior which would help to convince the Board that the United States was the best location for growing their new company.

Looking back 35 years from the current life science and technology center in Kendall Square, it is hard to imagine that there were only dilapidated buildings along Binney Street when Biogen first decided to locate there. The genesis of Kendall Square’s transformation to a technology hub was the 1960’s Space Race. President Kennedy’s goal that the United States would be the first nation to land a man on the moon was coupled with his idea to make Kendall Square the headquarters for the NASA Mission Control Center. Following President Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson continued to pursue the goal of a man on the moon, but moved the NASA Mission Control to Houston. This decision left the area underutilized until 1980 when the location of Biogen I in Kendall Square was the seed that would grow Kendall Square into the premiere life science cluster on the east coast. Biogen I was recently replaced by a new life science building by Alexandria Real Estate for Biogen’s Headquarters named the Philip A. Sharp Building.BIOGEN IIKendall Square was seen as having great potential for development. Boston Properties controlled much of the land north of Broadway and south of Binney. Working with Moshe Safdie as their master plan architect, they developed a plan for six new buildings fronting a new parking garage. These buildings would all be designed and built utilizing the design guidelines that Safdie had developed regulating the materials, colors and window proportions that had also been approved by the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority.

Boston Properties and Safdie master plan for a portion of Kendall Square.

In the Safdie master plan only the west facade of the building had vehicular access and it was also envisioned as the main pedestrian “street” for the campus of buildings. It was a design challenge to resolve making the front door inviting and obvious while also accommodating the service needs of the building in close proximity. The solid brick massing of the building was a function of the guidelines, so the solution was centered upon a careful studying of the proportions of solid (brick) and voids (glass and deep recesses). The early photograph of Biogen II at the top of this post looks somewhat lonely in the absence of the future context and immature landscape. Who remembers when you could see all the way to One Main Street and the MIT tower from Binney Street? A recent photo from a similar vantage point shows the mature planting, a new mechanical penthouse and the new logo for Biogen.

“The lab design is the best I have ever worked in.”, Harry Mead, Senior Scientist at Biogen, 1983.

Like Biogen I, this new corporate headquarters placed all the laboratories on the second floor focused around laboratory support areas. A major two-story atrium in the middle of the building featured a cascading stairway with plant-filled seating areas beneath a sky-lit canopy to encourage intermingling of scientists from the second floor and business/marketing/administrative personnel who worked on the first floor. A glass walled library, open dining room, and central lecture room with views of the atrium encouraged casual meetings. This type of building organization, designed to foster interaction between staff members who often had little in common, might seem obvious in today’s collaborative economy, but it was quite innovative in 1982. Biogen II remains a part of the current Biogen campus in Kendall Square. The critical addition to this building program was the 10,000 SF manufacturing facility which was dominated by a huge two-story fermentation room that enabled the “scaling-up” of successful lab chemistries from lab benches into the larger quantities that were necessary to conduct clinical drug trials. BIOGEN, S.A.After a couple of years of utilizing their fermentation plant in Cambridge, Biogen decided to develop a pharmaceutical production facility in Meyrin, Switzerland. DiMella Shaffer was asked to form and lead the international architectural/engineering team that planned a 100,000 square foot complex, which they designed in collaboration with Geneva-based architects Julliard & Bolliger. The first phase of a 32,000 square foot production facility was built and the Google image below will be the first time many people, including those who worked in the firm, have seen the constructed building on its site. It is remarkable that it is little changed from its original design even after 35 years.

Left: Rendering. Right: Former Biogen facility, Geneva, Switzerland.

Peter Shaffer credits this opportunity of working with Biogen to his personal connection, to the similar process ongoing with Teradyne Connection Systems, and to the ability to demonstrate research lab experience. Being neighbors opened the door, but Phil’s keen interest in Peter’s description of the planning process associated with the development of another young company’s facility was important. Phil saw similarities in what he and Wally were imagining for their new company. Their remaining concern was for Huygens and DiMella to demonstrate experience in the design of research laboratories.  Fortunately, a few years earlier Huygens and Tappe had completed the new 264-bed acute care teaching hospital, Catholic Medical Center, in Manchester, NH. Included in the project was a 30,000 square foot laboratory, which the PhD’s visited, convincing them of our ability to program and design research labs.

The success of the Biogen projects helped the firm develop an expertise that, during the 1980-90’s, was sought out by many other start-up biotech firms including Integrated Genetics, Genzyme, Enztech, and Biosurface Technology. Thirty-five years later, we are still working with companies early in their trajectory in the life sciences and technology sectors.