This past weekend I visited the PA Technology Center (PAT Center) in Princeton, NJ. It’s an R&D building by architect Richard Rogers that was completed in 1982.
The high tech architecture movement had a period of popularity between the 1960’s and 1990’s. Of the architects who practiced (and continue to practice) this genre, five are mentioned most often: Norman Foster, Nicholas Grimshaw, Michael Hopkins, Renzo Piano, and Richard Rogers. All except Renzo Piano are Brits. Because of this, the movement is often called “British” high tech.
I hate trying to sum up an entire architectural movement, mainly because of the difficulty in sorting through what are often disparate and conflicting views on the subject. (The practitioners of high tech even hate the label “high tech” for instance.) But, I will say that much of what we now consider sustainable design has roots in high tech. Mindful of the impact of buildings on the environment, high tech practitioners have always been optimistic about the use of science and technology to increase building performance, both actively and passively. Technological exploration also spawned experimentation in the use of building systems as design elements. Structure was exposed for all to see, and ducts were no longer hidden from view.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Pat Center is its unusual structure. The building eschews a standard grid of columns and beams for a much more dramatic suspended steel exoskeleton reminiscent of bridge construction and crane design. Roof beams are suspended, using steels rods, clevises, and circular brackets, from a central row of triangular masts. Columns only occur as part of the frames under the masts, and as a line of slender tubes at the outer perimeter. (The perimeter columns act more in tension to hold the roof down, versus acting in compression to support the roof’s weight.) The suspended roof provides a completely column free interior for maximum flexibility, without the use of enormous trusses. Additionally, with the roof structure residing outside of the building envelope, there are no beams to interfere with the running of mechanical services from the centrally located HVAC equipment. Not only does this increase the efficiency of the system, but the smaller plenum allows for higher ceilings. Higher ceilings let more natural light deeper in the building.
In the spirit of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the structure was manufactured as a pre-fabricated kit of parts. The pieces are held together using stainless steel pin connections, instead of costly and time-consuming welds. This allowed for the structural steel to be erected quickly. Plus, the exterior skin is made of standardized translucent panels with integrated windows, and the HVAC equipment is modular. In theory, if there was ever a need for expansion, the building could be added to more easily than a conventional building because of the component nature of the design.
The brightly painted lipstick red structure (now more of a dusty rose); the prominent placement of the air handling units on cheerful yellow platforms; and the exposed exterior ductwork are all very reminiscent of Rogers’ earlier collaboration with Renzo Piano on the Pompidou Center in Paris. The guts of the building are playfully exposed and color-coded for the viewer. These characteristics make the PAT Center a good representative of Rogers’ early career. It’s also one of only a handful of his buildings built in North America.
Is it perfect? Definitely not. Despite the advanced construction techniques and straightforward organization, it is still in essence a generic developer building. As such, the depth of the footprint is massive, meaning many interior occupants are far from direct sunlight and outward views. Operational efficiencies are gained in the configuration of the mechanical systems, but the air handling units themselves are standard variable air volume (VAV) units (not the least efficient way to heat and cool a building, but definitely not the most). The windows are also non-operable, further indicating a reliance on mechanical ventilation and conditioning versus passive, less energy intensive strategies. Finally, there’s the site. The meticulously maintained and vast treeless lawn provides a dramatic green carpet for the PAT Center to sit on, but I can’t help but wonder about the energy and resources it takes to maintain such a ballpark-like field that probably never has a foot set upon it.
The PAT Center is located about 30 minutes from Kahn’s Trenton Bath House. The building is currently unoccupied. The address is 279 Princeton Hightstown Rd., 08520 for those who would like to visit.