Neurological diseases such as autism, cerebral palsy, and Rett syndrome affect more than 1 billion people worldwide, including 300 million children. In a pioneering move, Texas Children's Hospital opened the world's first basic research institute dedicated to childhood neurological diseases and is bringing together a multidisciplinary team of geneticists, biologists, neurobiologists, physicists, behavioral scientists, computer scientists, and mathematicians under one roof to unlock the mysteries of childhood neurological diseases.
The Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute (NRI), which was designed by Perkins+Will and opened in December 2010, is a 13-story, 400,000-square-foot research facility in the heart of Houston's Texas Medical Center that accommodates 15 principal investigators and their research teams of 130 scientists under the leadership of Dr. Huda Zoghbi, a renowned neurogeneticist recognized internationally for her advancements in Rett syndrome research.
Collaboration became the theme not only for the building's intended function but also for the design process, which sought to achieve these primary goals:
Form a unified research environment with Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), Texas Children's academic partner, and neighboring institutions Rice University and University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, as well as international research partner Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine, based in Naples, Italy;
Foster collaboration, discovery, and innovation in a highly flexible facility able to readily adapt to changing research methods and technology; and
Create an environment to inspire researchers.
Design began with extensive information gathering, during which the design team, researchers, and Texas Children's Hospital administrators visited peer institutions across the nation and interviewed researchers to learn from the experiences of others involved in neurological research. With this valuable programming information in hand, Perkins+Will orchestrated a collaborative charrette, bringing together architects, engineers, contractors, Texas Children's facility staff, and researchers from the three collaborative institutions. The building site's location, facing a prominent intersection in the Texas Medical Center, prompted the team to seek a “worthy of wonder” (WOW) statement in the design. From the group's WOW initiative, a twisting tower was born with leaning columns that string together to visually form the double helix of a DNA strand, signifying the unification of science and research. The rotating floor plates suggest the life-altering research taking place within the facility and new directions cultivating in the building. Additionally, the twisting tower allows a look back across the medical center to the main Texas Children's Hospital campus five blocks away.
The design charrette also generated the desire to reinforce the research collaboration with other institutions by physically connecting the institute to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and BCM. The NRI tower's second floor has an internal bridge connecting to M.D. Anderson, and its structure was designed for a planned future sky bridge to BCM. Both bridges originate at opposite corners of the tower, pulling the tower in opposite directions. This creates the momentum that generates the rotation of the tower, which the design team calls a vertical “bridge” connecting the research floors. The rotation theme continues in the outdoor plaza, where retaining walls and a sidewalk mimic the tower's twist.