A new crop of science centers designed by architects tackle the task of reinventing the laboratory.

Icahnbody.jpg The Carl Icahn Laboratory at Princeton University.  Credit: Rafael Viñoly Architects PC

Architecture is not science and, to the dismay of many of its appreciators, it’s not art. Still, it borrows from both: Science, in particular, has profoundly influenced architects, informing their knowledge of materials, geometries, volumes and natural forms. Still, beyond the fundamentals, architecture owes a great debt to the language of science, which has become a dominant discourse of our times. Architects may produce shapes modeled on fractals or conceivably sit down at a drafting board after imbibing a few pages of chaos theory.

Newer structures often have an obvious analog in elements of the natural sciences: a butterfly wing, a ribcage, a microscopic pattern enlarged to a grand scale. Adrian Forty writes in his book, Words and Buildings: a Vocabulary of Modern Architecture, that “...since the scientific metaphors employed in architecture are drawn from such a diversity of scientific fields, from natural sciences as well as physical sciences and mathematics, the cumulative effect is to suggest the unlikeness of architecture from science in general.” Most architects would prefer not to take sides—instead feeling free to borrow from technology and sculpture, poetry and engineering.

In recent years, architects have also been called upon to devise new buildings, in which scientists will research, experiment, theorize, discuss, reevaluate and present findings. Architect Louis Kahn, one of the pioneers in designing monumental science buildings, was both celebrated (for the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA) and derided (for the Richards Medical Center at the University of Pennsylvania) by the researchers housed in his monumental designs of the 60s. In the post-Kahn design world, iconic buildings designed with the sciences in mind have lost traction, replaced with traditional structures built to support the sciences—typically utilitarian, homogenous and passable as a hospital or nameless corporate office.

The buildings presented here signify a new and radical experiment, finding their inspiration in Kahn’s work. All of them are meant to serve a social, rather than symbolic, function, giving form to the latest high-minded and urbane scientific inquiries: exploring the mysteries of how humans think, how the universe works and the further unraveling of man’s most basic building blocks. Architecture’s task—with its collage of concrete, steel and glass—is to position the scientist in a cultural space (even if the researchers put up a fight). The dream is that they will do away with the drab, often windowless structures where the search for truth often takes place, and introduce an interactive world swathed with natural light, inspiring shapes and the occasional sightline peeking into another colleague’s lab.

How architecture and science will define each other through this encounter is still to be seen, but it begins a dialogue that places architecture in a position to enable science to reach further into the unknown and come up with answers to life’s mysteries. Even more provocative is the possibility that this new architecture may somehow determine or influence the science conducted on the inside.

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(Click picture for a larger version)


La Jolla, California • Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

archphaenobody.jpg Credit: Michael Moran

Of any building of the last decade, the Neurosciences Institute designed by Tsien and Williams, completed in 1996, best asserted a new role for architecture in its on-and-off relation to science. The architects set out to create a “monastery for science,” where scientists—the high-minded Brahmins of our modern world—would uncover the secret workings of the human mind. The buildings are kept low, hugging the land, the east face cantilevered to take advantage of dramatic mountain views. Every element of the Institute, from the individual structures and landscape to the furniture and textiles, was carefully designed to engender a serene, peaceful ambiance. The yellow Texas limestone, concrete and glass create a protected sanctuary for interdisciplinary research, assembling a temple of knowledge waiting to be plundered.


Cambridge, Massachusetts • Gehry Partners

archphaenobody.jpg Credit: Andy Ryan

MIT‘s Building 20 was renowned as the site of many of the university’s greatest projects, like the wartime radar project, and as the egghead playground of many of its leading faculty members. But the “temporary” structure, hastily erected after WWII, was never meant to last. When the school chose Frank Gehry to design a replacement for the legendary building, they sought to challenge conventional ideas of campus lab space. Instead of another austere, faceless building, the brightly colored towers, angled walls and open, airy spaces of Stata are meant to foster interactions between the related pursuits housed within: It serves as home to the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Although the structure has been criticized for a lack of doors (private space is in high demand), the variety of social spaces and informal work areas may eventually revolutionize collaborative research. Playful spatial variety may not be the usual order when devising a building for studious researchers, but the hope is that, by putting all these great minds within arms reach of one another, some serendipitous encounters will result in the next big breakthroughs.


Cambridge, MA • Charles Correa Associates

BCSCthumb.jpg Credit: Andy Ryan

Along with its funky neighbor, the Stata Center, the BCSC—which opened in December—anchors a boulevard that will generate a whole new image of 21st century research. Primary designer Charles Correa mostly builds in his home base of India, where he employs bold shapes and colors to render spaces of sacred contemplation. For the BCSC, he was joined by Goody, Clancy and Associates, who concentrated on the task of designing individual laboratory spaces. Correa accomplished the building’s goal of bringing scientists from disparate backgrounds together by giving each of the primary occupants—the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory—separate entrances, but connecting them with a five-story atrium festooned with skylights and ornamental tropical plants. Where Stata is brash and loud, the BCSC is cool and collected.

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Waterloo, Ontario • Saucier + Perrotte Architectes

perimeterthumb.jpg Credit: Marc Cramer

Bankrolled by BlackBerry entrepreneur Mike Lazaridis, and intended to put Canadian physics research on the world map, the scientific mandate of this independent, resident-based, academic cooperative is “to discover and understand the fundamental laws of nature,” i.e., quantum gravity, string theory, quantum information theory, quantum mechanics, cosmology and elementary particle physics. Corralling abstractions such as black holes and 10-dimensional superstring equations into a square structure, was the job of Montreal-based Saucier + Perotte Architectes, who came up with a 6,000 square-meter concrete and glass prism. The two most striking features: the south façade, with its black anodized aluminum panels punctured with ventilation grilles and oddly shaped window openings, and on the opposite end, the north elevation, a series of 44 stacked boxes, containing the researchers’ offices, which are cantilevered over a reflecting pool. Seems it’s pretty hip these days to be square.


Princeton, NJ • Rafael Viñoly Architects

Icahnthumb.jpg Credit: Rafael Viñoly Architects PC

Thirty-one vertical louvers track the movement of the sun; a freshman class reviews under the undulating wood frame of an abstract horse’s head; natural light bathes molecular biology, physics, chemical engineering and computer science graduate students as they discuss their funding over coffee. The new lab at the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton, finished in 2004, harnesses the synergy of these disparate fields. To create a physical infrastructure to facilitate this connection, architect Rafael Viñoly sequestered the laboratories in two rectangular building blocks made up entirely of modular furniture and partitions that can be taken apart and reassembled. This way, when one particular research study is over, the whole configuration can change at a whim for the next project waiting to be tackled.


Cornwall, UK • Grimshaw Architects

Edenthumb.jpg Credit: Peter Cook

Eden Project, a showcase for global biodiversity that opened to the public in 2001, fulfills Buckminster Fuller‘s vision of the maximum enclosed volume with minimum surface area. Where other projects give us an original way of looking at the form of science, here Grimshaw Architects have taken the organic metaphor—Are the biomes honeycombs? Scales? A fly’s eye?—and made a structure akin to soap bubbles. Instead of glass, they employ a new high tech material: ethyltetrafluorethylene foil, a light, flexible, transparent film that is kept inflated by a constant, low-pressure air supply. So instead of approximating something in nature, the building literally appears to be a living organ in the landscape. It’s more than just a cool wrapping—inside is a tropical greenhouse with thousands of plants and animal species, as well as environmental exhibits and arts displays designed to teach and preach sustainability. Who said architecture and science can’t create a little drama and have a bit of fun in the process?

Originally published March 30, 2006


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