‘LabOratory’

Authors discuss their book on science and architecture.

January 3, 2020

What kind of building leads to science breakthroughs? That's the topic of LabOratory: Speaking of Science and Its Architecture (MIT Press).

Its authors -- Sandra Kaji-O'Grady, professor of architecture at the University of Queensland, and Chris L. Smith, associate professor of architecture at the University of Sydney -- are Australian, but their book is global in its perspective. They responded via email to questions about it.

Q: How are today's great laboratories different from earlier ones?

A: Earlier laboratories were much less engaged with the public -- they tended to be introverted, pragmatic and buried deep in university campuses or outside of city centers. Organizations that are not dependent on public support, for example, Janelia Farm, funded by the foundation established by the estate of Howard Hughes, maintain the older "island" mentality of a separate and intense world for science.

But for most contemporary research organizations, private philanthropy and investment, as well as broad public support for their experimental programs, is crucial to their existence. They tend to be urban and architecturally expressive. Even though the public aren’t able to just wander into the bench space where scientists are working, a great deal of effort is made to communicate their activities and to reassure the public that scientists aren’t cooking up Frankenstein in some hidden basement. We look at the many different ways in which architecture is used to express the ideologies and ideas of science in our book, including the application of scientific motifs to a building’s facade, the use of glazed walls to permit views in and out, and the addition of semipublic social spaces such as auditoriums and galleries.

Q: Why do laboratory architects always say that their designs will eliminate boundaries, communicate the benefits of research programs and foster collaboration?

A: The drive to harness architecture as a management tool comes from laboratory clients as much as from the architects that serve them. Scientific discovery is commonly mythologized as the unpredictable product of individual genius, accident or the serendipitous meeting of scientists from different disciplines recognizing a novel connection between their work. Coincident with this narrative is the fact of slow, incremental labor employing large teams of scientists working with masses of data using precise equipment and adhering to repeatable experimental protocols. Laboratory buildings must provide for both narratives -- they have places for the arduous process of experimentation as well as spaces for scientists to meet informally over lunch. Architecture can’t make scientists talk about their work over coffee, rather than their hobbies or children, but it can reinforce the idea that spending time away from the bench with colleagues is a part of the working day.

Q: What are some of the buildings that you think reflect these values?

A: Buildings such as the Blizard Building in Whitechapel [in London] do a magnificent job of challenging the boundaries that traditionally defined laboratories. The Blizard Building occupies an urban site and is split into two sections in order to integrate with the street and provide a new public alley or "mews." This mews breaks the scale of the laboratory and also welcomes the public in. Inside the laboratory are numerous floating pods that contain meeting and educational spaces that cater to groups of schoolchildren who come to learn about the biosciences and to observe what it is the scientists are doing. The children can look down on the scientists as the scientists themselves peer down into microscopes and petri dishes. The Blizard Building contains and controls the work of biological research whilst giving an impression of openness and pleasure. The architecture helps to transform science into spectacle, and in doing so makes it seem accessible to the untrained.

Another laboratory we write about is the Champalimaud Center for the Unknown in Lisbon. This building, designed by the architect Charles Correa, could be the set for a minimalist science fiction film with its long and rolling white walls with ovoid openings. It produces a singular and stark architectural image but brings together very different scientific and medical functions. The key collaboration fostered in this bespoke building is one between scientists, clinicians and patients. Scientists work on upper levels of the building conducting research into the diseases that patients are being treated for on the lower levels. And though it speaks in different ways to different users, it also serves to unite all users in a common purpose -- defeating disease.

Q: How does cost factor into laboratory design?

A: We are seeing incredible investment in the design of laboratory buildings. Partly, this is because the stakes are so high. It makes no sense to have a shoddy building that deters good employees or slows down scientific discovery, especially when the operational costs of running a laboratory and securing and paying for talented scientists over a couple of years might be equal to the cost of construction. More critically for architects, a very high proportion of establishing a new laboratory lies in the mechanical plant, services and equipment, data and security -- aspects that are sometimes invisible but operationally critical. This means that architectural features that might seem extravagant on say, a school, represent a comparatively minor part of the construction cost of a laboratory.

Q: What are your favorite designs in North America?

A: We managed to visit and write about only a handful of projects in North America. There were many laboratories deserving of our attention or still under construction that we missed. But of those we know well, we admire the Pharmaceutical Sciences Building at the University of British Columbia for its dramatic atria, the clarity of its organization and the architectural refinement of its detailing. Its architects, Saucier and Perrotte, got the balance between aesthetics and functionality just right. It’s a building that could work well anywhere, but other laboratories interest us because they are so specific to their circumstances. The quirky retro-village styling of the Hillside Campus at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, for example, would make no sense anywhere else.

Share Article

Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

Back to Top