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Cell-shaped Building Boasts Mitochondria, Membrane in China

By John Schwartz

The blob is coming to Chengdu.

A biomedical research institute in Chengdu, China, is planning to show true commitment to scientific principles by erecting an innovative building inspired by cells.

Bulges on the surface are meeting rooms and are intended to represent the proteins embedded in a cell membrane. The interior pools, shaped like mitochondria, border on the surreal.

The design may seem playful or even bizarre, but the intention is serious, said Shuguang Zhang, associate director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who worked with two MIT graduates, Sloan A. Kulper ’03 and Audrey M. Roy ’04, to bring his dream of “bio-inspired architecture” into being.

“Nature has built this kind of thing for billions of years, and finally humans caught on,” said Zhang, who is founding adviser to the Institute for Nanobiomedical Technology and Membrane Biology in Chengdu.

To many who do not share his enthusiasm, it might look as if somebody tried to make an office tower out of nougat and it melted in the sun. But to Zhang, standard buildings, with their straight lines and conventional boxy shapes, are “boring,” and the more imaginative works like those of Antoni Gaudi and Frank Gehry resonate.

“People will turn their head regardless,” he said, whether “they like it or hate it,” and children will be inspired to learn biology.

He said he rejected about a dozen designs from Kulper, a former student, before approving the current plan. “Some of them looked like Swiss cheese,” Zhang said. “Another looked like a cake.”

He expects the building to cost $12 million and is still in the fundraising phase, he said.

He said he doubted that people would actually hate the building. “It’s biology,” he said. “How many people hate trees? How many people hate seashells and mushrooms?

“When the Eiffel Tower was built,” Zhang added, “most of the people in Paris hated it. Now it has become a symbol of Paris.”