In a 2017 press conference at The Rockefeller University in New York City, biologist Michael Young kept referring to a “problem.” This problem had not hindered his Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough—he had just won the Prize in the “Physiology or Medicine” category for discovery of the molecular mechanism of circadian rhythm—but rather had framed the work that led to that advance.
Rockefeller, which would rank in the top ten nations by Nobel Prizes won if it were its own country, also had a problem that clearly framed the work set out before it.
Collaboration between researchers across lab boundaries is a fundamental component of the University’s approach to scientific research. While formal collaborative efforts have an important role to play, the informal collaboration and serendipitous interaction that arise organically between colleagues sharing the same space can’t be replaced.
Rockefeller found that the layout of tall tower-style laboratory buildings, segmented into smaller floors, had the effect of isolating each lab. So when the time came to build new, state-of-the-art lab facilities, Rockefeller looked to create a horizontally-oriented building that could accommodate large, open floors each shared between multiple labs and common spaces.
That’s where the problem arose. Rockefeller is located on the east side of Manhattan, where space is at a super-premium and building typically means building up. Without open space for a horizontal structure available, Rockefeller had to get creative. Within the framework of this very particular problem and desired outcome, the University advanced a novel solution.
The east side of campus almost overlooked the East River, but FDR Drive, one of the most heavily trafficked roads in the city, interposed itself between the two. In the airspace above FDR Drive, Rockefeller found the space for new construction with a broad horizontal footprint.
Building an additional two acres of campus above a busy roadway verging on a river required working with both surgical precision and balletic choreography. Construction work couldn’t take place over an active roadway, and there were only small windows in the early morning hours when that section of FDR drive could be closed to traffic to permit work. This meant building with prefabricated components, which would be brought in from the river. Tides in the East River even further restricted the already limited working windows.
Five years on from the launch of a project that had landmark support from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), the delicate dance of the barges and cranes is over and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation–David Rockefeller River Campus is complete. The name of the new campus speaks to an important aspect of the project’s origins. SNF’s founder, the late Stavros Niarchos, was close friends and business partners with the late David Rockefeller for over half a century. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation and David Rockefeller, during his lifetime, each committed $75 million to the project, which was announced in late 2014.
From one perspective, approaching from the east, the project presents a complete, metamorphic transformation for campus. But approaching from the west, on the other hand, a casual visitor might not immediately notice that anything has changed. The SNF–DR River Campus seamlessly integrates with the rest of the University’s grounds, gracefully extending its inviting green outdoor space.
What the new campus means for Rockefeller’s work likewise depends on the perspective you take.
From one perspective, this is a profound evolution for the University, ushering in a new era of potential in scientific collaboration and discovery here. The physical space makes possible a new way of conducting research, a new way model for interaction between colleagues, and new loci, indoors and outdoors, for scholarly community. It provides the cutting-edge research facilities that are critical to the University’s work.
From another perspective, the new campus represents a seamless continuation of the work already going on a Rockefeller and the philosophy behind it. It merely extends the physical space in which Rockefeller scientists are conducting world-class research, collaborating with one another across lab boundaries, building productive communities of knowledge, and framing the problems whose solutions have the power to change the world for the better.
From either perspective, though, the project’s essence is a human one. The guiding logic of this project and the immense technical difficulties that it entailed arose from the human-centric imperative at its heart. And as Rockefeller researchers continue to do Nobel-worthy work in biological and medical sciences with the potential to enhance human life—work enhanced by state-of-the art new lab facilities built with organic collaboration in mind—this human focus will remain at its heart.