Neuron Pod: Will Alsop's intergalactic porcupine of knowledge

Thrusting its bristly bottom out into the road, a curious spiny creature has landed in the backstreets of Whitechapel, London. Standing like an intergalactic porcupine, covered with long glowing quills that sway gently in the breeze, it is a startling thing to encounter in this unremarkable corner of hospital buildings and curry houses.

This is the £2m Neuron Pod, one of the last posthumous works of architect Will Alsop, who proves that he is still eminently capable of making mischief from beyond the grave. The project marks the latest addition to Queen Mary University of London’s campus, an informal science learning space for the armies of schoolchildren who benefit from the teaching hospital’s lively education programme. It is a classroom, but not as we know it.

Raised up on three tapering legs, the 23-metre-long rusting steel creature is arguably one of the architect’s most lovable creations. You first spot its rotund spiny backside from the street corner, then as you approach, its three little legs are revealed, narrowing to delicate points as if standing on tiptoes. Its long snout, meanwhile, stretches forward as though nuzzling towards something it can’t quite reach. It might be made of raw steel and covered in plastic spines, but you just want to give the chubby little thing a cuddle.

Curiosity … the Neuron Pod plugs in to Queen Mary University of London’s Whitechapel campus

Curiosity … the Neuron Pod plugs in to Queen Mary University of London’s Whitechapel campus. Photograph: Jonathan Cole

“It was important that it was an unusual structure to catch the schoolchildren’s curiosity,” says Lucy Atlee, director of Alsop’s former firm, aLL Design. “The building’s role is to inspire the next generation about science and medicine.”

It’s not modelled on a porcupine, she says, but a neuron, a nerve cell that transmits information around the body by electrical and chemical signalling. The tapering snout and legs are the bits that connect to other cells, while the 500 fibreoptic spines represent dendrites, hairlike extensions of nerve cells that transmit electrochemical signals. These might sound like unusual precedents for an architect, but this is all par for the course for a practice that has modelled its buildings on everything from Marge Simpson’s hair to the game KerPlunk.

“We began with a pack of Top Trumps cards of biological cells,” says Atlee, “and whittled them down to the ones that could become buildings. The neuron was a good fit, because the pod is about passing on knowledge.”

Entering along a bridge through the snout, pupils find themselves swallowed into the belly of the beast, into a cave-like classroom. Its curving ceiling and walls are painted with orange sprinkles (bacteria), while cloud-like lumps of acoustic foam, covered with scrunched aluminium mesh, hover overhead (representing microglia, another kind of cell that form part of the immune system). Complete with programmable coloured lighting, it makes a fun space for live science shows, hands-on workshops, experiments, debates, films and exhibitions.

Fun space … inside the cave-like Neuron Pod learning centre.

Fun space … inside the cave-like Neuron Pod learning centre. Photograph: Jonathan Cole

The spiny neuron is the most visible part of a much bigger Alsopian universe that extends inside the two anonymous-looking glass sheds either side of the rusty animal. Built in 2005, the Blizard Institute houses a vast subterranean laboratory where 300 scientists are busy working on genomics, immunology, neuroscience and population health, oversailed by a series of cell-shaped pods suspended on wayward stilts. At one end is a spiky black blob, like a lump of slime pulled in all directions, followed by a smooth white chrysalis with porthole windows, and a black-and-white-striped mushroom – all meeting rooms – and finally a majestic red embryo bulging with domed protrusions on all sides. This is the Centre of the Cell, home to a dazzling interactive educational experience of projections and touch-screen monitors, which has seen 180,000 schoolchildren passing through since it opened in 2009.

Inside the Blizard Institute … labs below, meeting rooms suspended above.

Inside the Blizard Institute … labs below, meeting rooms suspended above. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

“Neuron Pod will allow us to fulfil our potential and offer so much more to our visitors,” says Professor Fran Balkwill, the centre’s director. “What’s really important to us is that it increases our ability to interact with the local community. It will be exciting to see how this space evolves. We’re hoping it will become a space where people can let their imaginations run riot.”

It is a fitting final chapter for Alsop, who died last May, and a case where his particular brand of joyful whimsy has found the perfect match in the client’s brief. His madcap ideas didn’t always meet reality with happy results, but, as former Guardian critic Jonathan Glancey described the Blizard building when it opened, it is “rational and romantic, questioning, quixotic and necessary” – a rare cocktail that lives on in Whitechapel’s spiny new friend.


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