A couple of days ago I crossed London to give a talk at Barts and the London, in the Blizard Institute of Cell and Molecular Science.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. The ICMS is in a pair of modern buildings, straddling an obscurely empty courtyard area which seems unsure of the reason for its existence. Flanking it at one end is an apparently residential terrace, and at the other is the fringe of the Royal London Hospital.

This leads to a pleasing collision between the old and the new, because the London is the oldest medical college in England and Wales. Its history goes back to the late 18th century, with a prelude of 40 or so years as an early hospital based on Featherstone Street. Even now, it is clearly cut from some fairly antique cloth, which is what makes the ICMS such a surprise.

In the main research building, offices both open plan and closed occupy the 4 exterior walls, while in the centre is a vast area in which an open plan lab, the largest I have ever seen, sits in the basement. In the space above this, three… things are suspended. I call them things because I am not quite sure how else to describe them. But you can get an idea through this virtual tour.

One of them is ‘The Heart of the Cell’, a vaguely nuclear looking brown/orange lump. It houses an outreach space where teachers can bring kids to learn about cells and see, down below them, real scientists doing real science. Insofar as the nucleus in question looks more atomic than cellular it seems to be a bit confused, but it still maintains a nicely organic quality.

In the middle is ‘The Cloud’, which contains meeting rooms. What it is supposed to represent escapes me. It reminds me of the giant gasbag aliens which some people have suggested dwell in the atmosphere of Jupiter, in the absence of course of anything resembling serious evidence. Why it is there, other than to look cool, I have no idea. But yes, it looks cool.

And finally, at the far end, a black object called ‘Spikey’. It is supposed, apparently, to be a fibroblast. But a fibroblast with electric blue lights ringing its protrusions. It hangs over the lab like a dark star. It is undeniably cool. It also has a full complement of AV equipment and a flat screen surround sound system. Yes, I gave my talk in Spikey.

The acoustics are a bit odd from, well, from being “one of the most complex geometrical tensile forms ever completed.” This means you can sometimes hear lab mutterings filtering up from down below, but this actually makes you feel more involved with the building than usual.

Would working somewhere like this, which makes me think more of the Science Museum than the usual academic environment, wear off after a while? And I wonder how the kids visiting the building respond? I thought it was quite enchanting, but it might not be to all tastes.

Perhaps the biggest concern is how it will appear in a few years. Unfortunately the shock of the new, is all too often followed by the slump of the naff.