“Building Meaningfully”: Burroughs Wellcome Corporate Headquarters, 1972

Exhibit / July 25, 2019

Object Name: Burroughs Wellcome Headquarters
Maker and Year: Paul Rudolph, 1969-1972
Object Type: Building complex
Description: (Richard McKenna)

In 1969, pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome commissioned renowned modernist architect Paul Rudolph to design its new corporate headquarters and research facility in Durham, North Carolina. The result was a visionary modular complex whose geometries created a futuristic melding of spaces and forms.

Rudolph had studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Design under Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, who introduced him to the International Style of architecture, and his previous work included what is probably his best-known building, the Yale Art and Architecture Building, which is considered one of the earliest examples of Brutalist architecture in the US. To Rudolph, an architect was someone “concerned with building meaningfully. As opposed to someone who is interested in building efficiently, or sometimes even beautifully,” and he spoke of the need to furnish buildings with “different kinds of space: the quiet, enclosed, isolated space; the hustling, bustling space, pungent with vitality; the paved, dignified, vast, sumptuous, even awe-inspiring space; the mysterious space; the transition space which defines, separates and yet joins juxtaposed spaces of contrasting character.” The Burroughs Wellcome Headquarters was a perfect embodiment of this philosophy.

Constructed around a triangular A-frame structure, the three-hundred-thousand-square-foot building was intended to function as a continuation of the sloping ridge upon which it was built, with modular hexagonal pod sections bubbling forth from the building’s main bulk and erupting from one another with an almost organic-seeming lack of order and symmetry, with most of the building’s offices clustered around the cathedral-like three-story foyer that was designed to be the building’s focal point—an effect Rudolph would use again for the atrium of the New York penthouse he shared with his partner Ernst Wagner. In 1982, Burroughs Wellcome commissioned Rudolph to design a 120,000-square-foot annex to extend office space and provide a dining room for the facility’s 500 employees. Testament to the building’s propensity for modular growth, the annex was completed in 1986.

A million miles away from the postmodernism and triumphalist structural expressionism that would increasingly dominate architecture in the the decades that followed, the Burroughs Wellcome building somehow feels intrinsically egalitarian and optimistic—though that optimism is tempered somewhat by knowledge of the corporate shenanigans that inevitably took place within its sloping walls; it was inside the facility’s laboratories that controversial antiretroviral drug AZT was identified as a possible solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Originally developed, and then abandoned, as a cancer drug, AZT was rushed through FDA approval procedures (possibly causing the marginalizing of other, perhaps less toxic cures) for release in 1987. At the time, it was the most expensive drug ever sold, and Burroughs Wellcome successfully fought off repeated attempts to have their hugely profitable cash cow reclassified as a generic until the expiry of patents in 2005.

The Burroughs Wellcome complex was featured in special effects maestro Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 elegiac and spiritual sci-fi film Brainstorm, where Christopher Walken can be seen carrying his bicycle through the buildingThough now partly in disuse, it remains a beautiful, utopian space whose hopeful blend of modernist rigor and organic proliferation of forms inspire reflection upon just how lovely and stimulating our built environment can be, and what forces are in play to stop it from being so for such a large part of the human race.

3 thoughts on ““Building Meaningfully”: Burroughs Wellcome Corporate Headquarters, 1972

  1. Pingback: We Have Met the Enemy, and It Might Be Us… Maybe. Probably Not. – Tropics of Meta

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