Pharma architecture and informatics, whiteboards as the silo of ideas, symbol of demise

Yesterday thanks to a kind prize from David Kroll I embarked upon a “trip” to one of the most amazing ex-pharma offices in the world. I went to the former Burroughs-Wellcome Elion-Hitchings Building, a masterpiece by Paul Rudolph and most recently the home of GSK. A special one day open house made possible by Triangle Modernist Houses. What follows are my insights into corporate organization, the evolution of modern furniture and architecture, and relics of pharma all from this one building.

But first, I should set the stage by saying that my interest in architecture and design stemmed from finding a Pelican paperback book, “An introduction to Modern Architecture” by J.M. Richards, when I was 19. The book dated from 1940 and presented architecture from Frank Lloyd Wright to the Bauhaus master Walter Gropius (who taught Paul Rudolph) and Le Corbusier. Of course the book also threw in a few British architects too and several interesting examples of pharmaceutical company architecture in the UK. Photos of a Roche factory at Welwyn Garden City with walls full of windows designed by O.R. Salvisberg and the Boots chemical factory in Beeston, with curving walls of glass by Sir Evan.O. Williams, were most notable from the 1930’s. I was drawn to Le Corbusier’s buildings and the stark modern style that would define my interest in design and furniture to the present day. Over the years I have been in some buildings of note, like Fallingwater by Wright, and seen others on my travels around the globe. So I think I can say when I have seen something special. While this former GSK building and Fallingwater were both built to take advantage of the natural surroundings, this one is exposed on a ridge to the same extent that the other is hidden in the woods. What amazed me was not only the angular shape of Rudolph’s design but the sheer complexity of it, which must have taken years to draft by hand.

I entered like Alice down a rabbit hole into wonderland.

This building will certainly inhabit my dreams for a long while to come. Part ageing skeleton, like a whale washed ashore, slowly rotting. Part space station, endless corridors without the stormtroopers or robots moving down them. Escaping down the back stairs all breezeblocks and rubber coated stairs was like an alternative route inside the brain, a short cut, not elegant but functional so this signal could be fired to the next layer quickly. This was like a scene from a William Gibson novel, yet it was now. My wireless device of choice was saving this reality so I could download the emotional response immediately.

There was also contradiction, a place so obviously spacious had been filled by the detritous of industry, the central lobby coffee bar, a remnant of Starbucks past, a human experience to be replaced by personal coffeepods in the next generation. The sunken seating area with a giant version of a Nelson bench, so obvious a rip-off but so tastefully done it was a part of the whole design and also functional. I wished this building had been dressed inside with other period furniture, Perhaps some Panton or Platner chairs would work well. But the built-ins would have to suffice. Sadly the building was strewn with bloated red/brown executive furniture fake wood laminated, bulky comfy swivel chairs on chrome pedestals, the cube world horizontal walls filling the space like an embolism in this blocked artery of an angular void.

At once Escher-like with steps, angled walls, layered on more of the same, the built-in furniture maybe ash was a luxurious relic, made-to-measure carpentry from a bygone age. Just marvellous. My father an amateur cabinetmaker would salivate over this if he could see it. If Fallingwater, albeit much smaller and horizontal  could be compared to this again it would be the multiple opportunities for such craft throughout. Here pharma executives needed closets, wet bars and personal refigerators, shielding for AC/heating vents and marble topped seats. There, they needed seating for relaxing, functional but not that comfortable to my eye.

Who would have thought an empty building could illicit such thoughts both during and after the visit. But it also reminded me of a photo exhibit from over a decade ago which I had seen at Yale, on old furniture mills, long since closed. You saw what they were before and after going out of business, when just the building remained. You then knew how they hummed with machinery. But the furniture is now made in China and elsewhere. This office building would have a different hum, that of people. But the same fate awaited it as the work done here likely migrated abroad.

If I had stopped at this point I would have had enough musings for this blog. But then I realized that all the visitors who were looking at the building probably had a different perspective, be they architects, designers, artists or those who appreciated good design. The difference was I knew what had inhabited these offices having worked alongside scientists, managers and executives I could imagine them from any company populating this space. As the others took their photos of the building innards I realized we were also witnessing something akin to Pompei or the Mary Celeste.

It was now a vacuum, a museum, a time capsule of sorts. Although there was no equipment, no computers, microscopes or other remants of science and certainly no books or papers. I longed for the written word, the message in the bottle. What were the inhabitants like, what did they do, why did they disappear? There were signs of humor like the antique looking coat hooks on the modernist pebblewall, frustration perhaps in hidden areas like signs in a server room..and a telephone booth.

And then I found it. If a cave man had his wall for expression, the scientists their white slate. Almost every office had one, they were the wall decor, the whiteboard. To me this was like finding the Dead Sea scrolls. One whiteboard, the first to make its mark was informatics related. It listed cheminformatics tools and people responsible. To others in the room it meant nothing, but to me the holder of the Codex, it immediately spoke.

This opened the door. I was parsing what I read. Could the last occupants really have thought that others would clean their boards? While the executive suite seemed whiteboard free this virus had spread rampant to the floors below, could this have resulted in the former inhabitants demise? A silo of knowledge now unfurled to me, I strolled the expansive maze peeking in one office after another. Some left minimalist mementos a setting sun, a Monet garden, a Keith Haring-like Paisley pattern with koala bear playing taps in genetic code?  Others crammed every inch with codewords as if this was their only outlet for them. I had found my voice from the grave and it was speaking to me loudly, a sign that they exited alive to a future unknown.

A building so empty was a powerful metaphor for the pharma that was once a giant mass of people and knowledge. While we blame the current productivity/ innovation/ outsourcing trend and overall demise on many things, could the very buildings that house them be partly responsible. Our ability to layer knowledge on seperate floors, this upstairs/ downstairs dynamic with the executives removed from the brains below. And then the partitioning by cave like cubicles leaving only isolated whiteboards for sharing our ideas. It certainly made me wonder, and remind me of my interactions inside many a big pharma. I had seen this pattern before time and time again, perhaps the writing is still on the walls. I wonder if other moth-balled pharma sites like Sandwich still have such remnants? If we are to look at science from the future a snapshot of this building just would not be complete without a whiteboard..and a koala bear playing taps in code.

On my way out I had to visit the err facilities, I turn around and find a restricted access door to the “telephone room”. Who would think to look in the men’s bathroom for the super-secret access doorway entry point to all a big pharma’s data. I doubt this was part of the Rudolph design. Perhaps we can learn a lot about a company based on how they organize their staff in a building, where they hide their knowledge and whether they make sure the last scientist to turn out the lights wipes the whiteboards ?


A futuristic masterpiece

laboratory pods ?

more spacecraft than lobby

the original stone cube-world – who needs full walls?






Which window shape do you like?


Nelson-like bench in conversation pit

Seating pit and X beams



Built in marble top executive suite bench and wood panelled vent


executive closets and fridge




ironic antique coat hooks on modernist interior

No working – added in pen – sign inside a server room

Please speak softly – people working above..Ah phone boxes..remember them?








first Whiteboard – informatics related


2nd Informatics whiteboard – synonyms


3rd informatics whiteboard

Landscape whiteboard – trees


The fountain of pharma knowledge in the mens bathroom



One is never enough



4th informatics whiteboard – covers all space


Keith Haring like Paisley design + koala

detail on Keith Haring like image with Koala and taps being played

Informatics – Samurai

sunrise / sunset



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6 pings

  1. Barry Bunin says:

    Thanks for the bittersweet blog and priceless photos.

  2. sean says:

    More on the building can be found here…http://abelpharmboy.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/elion-hitchings-building-tour/

  3. sean says:

    If anyone knows any of the artists resposible for the whiteboard art I would like to give them credit, so please let me know.

  4. sean says:

    and here is David’s Storify http://cenblog.org/terra-sigillata/2012/10/22/elion-hitchings-building-tour-a-storify/

  5. sean says:

    Perhaps clues to current GSK scandal could be found on whiteboards in China?

  1. Elion-Hitchings Building Tour « Terra Sigillata Archives says:

    […] Sean Ekins was fortunately able to use one of my tickets — and I’m glad he did because his post on the visit is truly elegant and reflective on the metaphors this building holds for the past and present state of drug discovery. He also has […]

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