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The Evolution of Architecture for Experimental Sciences

Eden Platell

The Evolution of Architecture for Experimental Sciences

Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, soon to take up the reigns as Head of School and Dean of Architecture at the University of Queensland, has undertaken significant research into the evolution of architecture for experimental science buildings.

No longer clandestine compounds, modern research buildings now reflect societal changes in attitudes towards science and are much more open, accessible and transparent. In fact Kaji-O’Grady believes they are now joining institutions such as libraries and museums as public places worthy of architectural design.

Of particular interest to Kaji-O’Grady is the Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge by Stanton Williams, 2012 winner of the prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture. Many people were shocked at this announcement, some even declared the building an ‘anti-icon’ and questioned how it could possibly meet the criteria of ‘contributing to the evolution of architecture’.

While this remains open to debate, Kaji-O’Grady believes the conflicting nature of scientific buildings that require both security and containment to be balanced with openness, collaboration and public engagement has created “some of the most fascinating and contradictory architecture of our time”.

Recent years have seen a push for encouraging socialisation and collaboration amongst scientific peers. Subsequently labs have moved from solitary offices to open plan spaces with coffee shops, restaurants and lounges. Despite this push, Kaji-O’Grady said many spaces were not being used as intended and that more meaningful exchanges were taking place through journals and online rather than in the hallways and coffee queues.

The other push for more open and transparent spaces comes from the desire for public engagement and acceptance. Research centres tend to rely on funding from public, private and philanthropic sources. Making science more visible physically is an attempt to demystify what has traditionally been an inaccessible and seemingly secretive endeavor in the eyes of those who may directly or indirectly contribute funding.

Investigating many new architecturally designed scientific centres around the globe; Kaji-O’Grady identified several common themes in addressing the emerging need for collaborative, open spaces that garner public support by making science accessible.

Perhaps one of the most common was visual references to scientific iconography–spiral staircases that represented DNA strands and facades that denoted DNA maps, cells and molecules and periodic tables. Others tended to take a more abstract approach with chaotic and clashing structures symbolising colliding molecules and the collaboration of ideas while the final category Kaji-O’Grady identified used emerging materials to build sleek and shiny beacons to science and technology.

In addressing the need for collaboration and openness the Sainsbury Laboratory has ticked many boxes. Sitting innocently in the University of Cambridge’s Botanic Garden, the plant research centre uses lots of glass and natural materials to capture a balance between transparency and privacy.

A courtyard coffee shop is open to the public while other smaller courtyards are secured for exclusive staff use. Visitors can enter the precinct through the gardens or across the campus and can see the labs on higher levels from the coffee shop, but not closely enough that they can see the actual goings-on inside.

At this stage four unenclosed labs are contained within the secure levels of the building, although already this has proved to be ineffective with at least one scientific team using a makeshift secure lab for their work. Kaji-O’Grady predicts all four labs will need to be enclosed at some point to allow for the kind of research that needs to be undertaken there.

The Sainsbury Laboratory stands as testament to the tension that exists between providing a secure, neutral space for the safe repetition of experiments and the desire for a transparent and open space that encourages sociability and collaboration and garners public support and acceptance. Perhaps its relative success has earned it the honour of contributing to the evolution of architecture, as credited by RIBA in awarding the project the Stirling Prize.

This article was based on the lecture presented by Sandra Kaji-O’Grady from the University of Sydney as part of the UQ Architecture Lecture Series event on Tuesday 11 June, 2013.

How can you balance the competing and often conflicting interests of security and containment with openness and transparency? Are science centres joining libraries and museums as new public spaces? What implications does this have for their design?

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