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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 13, 2010

Well, Okay: The Ugliest Biopharma Sites?

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Posted by Derek

In response to a reader query in the comments to yesterday's post on scenic research sites, I guess we should explore the other end of the scale. Nominations for the ugliest/most depressing research site are now open. This is physical surroundings, folks, not mental atmosphere, not that that can't get oppressive at times. We're looking for things that can be captured by a camera. There can be a connections, though - as Kingsley Amis put it ("Aberdarcy, Main Square"):

The journal of some bunch of architects
Named this the worst town center they could find
But how disparage what so well reflects
Permanent tendencies of heart and mind?

Looking back, Schering-Plough's old Bloomfield site was not exactly a sweeping vista of loveliness, but (to be fair) it did look better than some of the rest of the neighborhood, and the Home Depot and parking lot that replaced it during the 1990s have probably never made anyone's heart leap, either. Sticking with the N. New Jersey sites, some of which are going to be strong contenders in this category, it's unlikely that either Merck's buildings in Rahway or Roche's in Nutley have inspired much lyric poetry. Other nominations?

Note: in the spirit of that Amis reference, those who find themselves affected by nasty industrial landscapes might want to cheer along with John Betjeman's "Slough".

Comments (35) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Industry History


1. partial agonist on October 13, 2010 7:03 AM writes...

Merck Rahway was the least scenic I ever saw on jon interviews. The now vacated, I presume, former G.D. Searle site in Skokie Illinois was right up there too, or is it down there... lots of smoke stacks, industrial smells, etc. in the area.

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2. Anonymous on October 13, 2010 7:24 AM writes...

GSK Stevenage. A concrete jungle sandwiched between the A1(M) and the East Coast Mainline - stunning!

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3. Petros on October 13, 2010 7:25 AM writes...

The old May & Baker (Rhone Polenc/ aventis/ S-a) site in Dagenham has to be the grimmest in the UK.

Tube out from central London through the worst parts of East London. The site looked like a chemical works and was dwarfed by the Ford Factory.

The main Bayer site, in Leverkusen, was pretty grim but not really biopharma and I'm sure some of the other European chemical/pharma conglomerates were also bad.

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4. petros on October 13, 2010 7:29 AM writes...

BTW Slough isn't very industrial just drab in comparison to much of the surrounding area (Windsor and the Buckinghamshire countryside). It is all light industry, with UCB and Lonza both in swish new facilities in the industrial area

Celltech (now UCB) and Xenova (RIP) both started in depressing looking old buildings.

Just up river the original Oxford Asymmetery labs were in modified WWII Nissen huts

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5. Ed on October 13, 2010 7:33 AM writes...

Any company located in the shadow of the ugliness of the two Didcot power stations (Vertex UK, Evotec, Aptuit, Chroma) gets my vote.

Luckily the wind usually blows the stink the other way, so its not all bad.

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6. Greg Hlatky on October 13, 2010 7:56 AM writes...

Exxon Chemicals old Linden technology center was in northern New Jersey off US 1; need we say more? Every time I visited it seemed to be raining there (even on sunny days). The place was an old redbrick pile with bleak corridors and depressing labs. Everyone who worked there seemed embittered. Bring up an idea with someone there and the answer was always some variation of "Naah, that won't work, we tried that years ago..."

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7. Jose on October 13, 2010 8:20 AM writes...

The old Sterling-WInthrop site, nestled amongst IG Farben industrial wastelands In Albany is certainly on the list.

Some sweet photos and history here:

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8. JerseyStrong on October 13, 2010 8:23 AM writes...

MRL-Rahway and Schering-Plough Process @ Union...can we say ghetto? Unlike Lawrenceville and Hopewell, BMS Process in New Brunswick lacks the bucolic charm despite having the tax-incentive cows.

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9. ScuperScoot on October 13, 2010 8:24 AM writes...

There is a beauty to these utilitarian buildings and landscapes - they were built purely for function.

In a 1940 essay in Fortune magazine, the editors had this to say of Charles Sheeler's paintings of industrial objects and landscapes:

"The heavenly serenity of Sheeler's style brings out the significance of the instruments of power he here portrays....He shows them for what they truly are: not strange, inhuman masses of material, but exquisite manifestations of human reason....

As the artists of the Renaissance reflected life by picturing the human body, so the modern American artist reflects life through forms such as these; forms that are more deeply human than the muscles of a torso because they trace the firm pattern of the human mind as it seeks to use co-operatively the limitless power of nature."

Maybe a bit of hubris there on the ability of the human mind to co-opt nature, but there's something pure about a building built purely for function.

Links to Sheeler paintings:
American Landscape

Classic Landscape

Steam Turbine

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10. SP on October 13, 2010 8:45 AM writes...

Your part of town is certainly in the running, Derek- all the warehouse-like biotechs around Cambridgeport are pretty gross.

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11. Jal-Frezi on October 13, 2010 8:47 AM writes...

Out of desperation I once went for an interview at the Coalite labs in Bolsover, Derbyshire. A vista of slag heaps combined with an all pervading odour of chlorinated phenols with a cheeky dioxin undertone.

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12. Dannoh on October 13, 2010 9:10 AM writes...

I will offer up the Abraxis BioScience plant in Melrose Park, IL. The viewer, looking out any window (of which there are two; sunlight makes the employees happy, therefore it must not be allowed) is treated to what was best described as a landscape of rust. The neighborhood itself is charming too; prostitutes and street pharmacists patrol the area each evening, ensuring off shift personnel an adventure in obtaining dinner from one of the many greasy spoons competing for space with gentlemen's clubs and garbage dumps.

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13. Ugh on October 13, 2010 9:12 AM writes...

Jose, would you touch the Arthur Kill with a 10-foot pole?

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14. sigma147 on October 13, 2010 9:24 AM writes...

Having worked for 2 years at the Chembiotek site in Salt Lake, outside of Kolkata, I'd challenge anyone with that. Mind you, the piles of garbage in the adjacent field, along with the ramshackle huts and the smells from the nearby Chinese leatherworks never really leave you...

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15. Anon on October 13, 2010 9:43 AM writes...

While Rahway, NJ may have the uglier neighborhood, Merck West Point is certainly the uglier site. A decade ago, all the money (and executives) moved 1/4 mile away to the Upper Gwynedd site leaving only a sprawl of labs and manufacturing in WP.

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16. Sarah on October 13, 2010 9:51 AM writes...

partial agonist -- Funny you should mention the former Searle site. I actually work there...after Pfizer shut it down, a company bought it, tore down a building or two, and now leases it out to small tech companies. It's actually quite nice, and although there are a few run-down industrial buildings/warehouses around, I had a nice view of the Sears Tower before we moved labs.

ps -- It can't be that ugly, as Warner Brothers is about to shoot a movie here next month.

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17. Nick K on October 13, 2010 10:43 AM writes...

My vote for the ugliest Pharma site goes for the long-departed Labaz-Sanofi site in the north of Brussels. Just a few meters from the Brussels Ring, it overlooked Carcoke Marly, a coking plant, and Kemira, a fertilizer factory. Fortunately, the proximity to Brussels made up for a lot,

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18. gyges on October 13, 2010 10:46 AM writes...

But beauty, or lack thereof, is in the eye of the beholder.

Driving towards Middlesbrough one sees a fantastic site of chemical plants. Said beauty is enhanced when you know what goes on inside them.

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19. anon on October 13, 2010 11:24 AM writes...

i agree with 17, when the skyline was the inspiration for LA in bladerunner you know you've reached the pinacle of ugliness.

Plus some small part of the place (always different) seems to be on fire whenever I drive past.

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20. okemist on October 13, 2010 12:04 PM writes...

There are lots of places where there is good research going on in blighted urban areas. In New Haven the old Colt Arms factory is now a biotech park and the bullet holes in the windows aren't from the original owners. In south Buffalo the now Honeywell Reseach facility are some beautiful 1950's labs in a devestated former industrial area. On a more bucholic note, an engineer friend of mine took me on a tour of an old GE rocket research facility in a remote forrest in northern NY and in this one of the decrepid but still standing buildings there was a room with two hoods. When I asked if it was an organic lab, I was told 'Oh yea, that was where AMR started working on there first contracts.

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21. Anonymous on October 13, 2010 12:11 PM writes...

seems like the UK is overrepresented in this survey

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22. zDNA on October 13, 2010 4:03 PM writes...

@7 Jose:

I worked at this site for a few years, and I'll add that an additional "plus" to the scenery is the sewage treatment plant across the street. From street level, you can't see the aeration and settling ponds, but on the upper floors you get treated to the sight of sewage fountains. And let's not forget the *smell*, especially during the summer.

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23. Spike on October 13, 2010 4:43 PM writes...

Partial agonist. The old Searle site in Skokie (the labs, not the office building further north) is still in use but is occupied by multiple tenants. H and K building were pulled down but some of the buildings (at least A, P and Q) are still functional. When it was built, it might have been attractive since it was surrounded by open fields and was designed to look like an ocean liner appearing from the prairie when viewed from Oakton. Looking at it in the 90s that wasn't obvious!

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24. Anonymous on October 13, 2010 6:40 PM writes...

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. I always thought the SP Union site was beautiful - mostly because is was spic-n-span clean and there were lots of gainfully employed chemists, engineers and biochemists happily toiling, despite the awful economy. Now it just looks sad...

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25. @21 on October 13, 2010 7:16 PM writes...

What about BASF Ludwigshafen? Germany represent!

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26. partial agonist on October 13, 2010 11:04 PM writes...

Spike & Sarah, my bad impession of the Skokie area may well have been tempered by the dreary winter day for my job interview, which was way back in the 1990s. In any event, it's good that work still goes on there.

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27. Anon on October 13, 2010 11:14 PM writes...

Anywhere in New Jersey.

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28. in Lab on October 14, 2010 2:25 AM writes...

GSK - Harlow, nice building, built in a town that is the last stop on the train line to hell.

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29. Anonymous BMS Researcher on October 14, 2010 7:01 AM writes...

@okemist: I've never been inside the former Colt Arms factory (now Science Park), but have seen it from the outside plenty of times. Some years back my wife interviewed at one of the biotechs there but she was put off by the location.

Yale's Nursing School, which is across the street from a housing project, is surrounded by high walls reminiscent of a correctional facility. Their windows also get stray bullets from time to time.

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30. coprolite on October 14, 2010 7:25 AM writes...

I've heard Rockford, Illinois is beautiful this time of year.

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31. oilchemist on October 14, 2010 1:32 PM writes...

While not a biotech/pharma site there is always Exxon Bayway nest to the oil refinery. The interesting thing is all the vacant lots in the subdivision next to the refinery. When ever a house goes on sale Exxon buys it and tears it down but it does show the brilliance of Texas zoning to allow houses next to a major oil refinery.

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32. Anonymous on October 14, 2010 7:22 PM writes...

@oilchemist: Um, "Texas zoning" is rather an oxymoron.

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33. k on October 14, 2010 9:06 PM writes...

Melrose Park, like most of the other suburbs surrounding O'Hare Airport, has no redeeming qualities, unless you like industrial areas and jet noise. Possibly the only open space in Skokie, which might be considered a beautiful thing, is the cemetery across the street from Old Orchard Mall.

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34. Anonymous on October 15, 2010 9:43 PM writes...

Beauty is in the eyes of the employed. Accept your surroundings as a blessing...I'm just trying to keep it real (or reel if you like fishing...LOL). My Best to all!!!

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35. glinkst on October 19, 2010 11:25 PM writes...

San Diego. So many small companies have downsized and so many for rent/for sale signs it has become one huge expensive slum.

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