The idea of the laboratory embodies a kind of quintessential modernity. As a building type it has become an archetype which communicates a series of fundamental Enlightenment ideals; objectivity, clarity, hygiene, progress, an almost fanatical faith in science. A recurring criticism of modernist architecture throughout the twentieth century was that it was clinical, dehumanised - like a laboratory. Yet ironically, the over-simplification of the modernist project which aimed at the production of a building as a rational machine was surpassed by increasing complexity and increasingly irrational developments in the scientific world. A world that was being shaken to its roots by new understandings of the strange, unpredictable and counter-intuitive behaviour of the world at a sub-atomic level. Science, as the Enlightenment Project, which underpinned modern man’s notion of a world that could be comprehended and controlled, was exploding and fragmenting into incomprehensible and uncontrollable absurdity.
If the classic rational building of science represents that modernist ideal, the contemporary building for science is beginning to embody its opposite, an acknowledgement of a world in which things seem to happen more randomly, in which events are catalysed by collisions between particles. Like the particle colliders which are pushing the boundaries of contemporary science, it becomes a finely tuned machine to, paradoxically, create accidents.
Hawkins\Brown’s New Biochemistry building in Oxford demonstrates this idea with great clarity. At the same time it shows why contemporary corporate architecture is looking towards buildings for science for inspiration and quite how to inject serendipity into business space.
What the architects have done is to open up the heart of the building as an internal public space and then pulled the circulation across it in a series of strange, deliberately organic gestures. This central space and the timber-wrapped stairs that cross it – concretised lines of desire, are themselves surrounded by the scientist’s write up spaces. So that, at the moment the scientists are forced to consider the implications of their experiments, they are thrust into the active centre of a community rather than being banished to cells isolated around its edge.
The purpose is, of course, to compel collisions, to manufacture random meetings between scientists who would otherwise rarely come into contact with each other and, through this contact, to generate all support cross fertilisation which results from ideas sparking others. Modern science has become so specialised, and consequently so compartmentalised, that very few figures are able to engage in cutting-edge research across disciplines. Yet we understand that it is at the fuzzy edges between seemingly disparate fields that the really new discoveries are being made. This idea of the building as a catalyst for creating meetings is what has made it such a successful structure.
Beyond this internal organisation there is further innovation in the way the building opens up its process to the outside world. In placing the laboratories on the public faces of the building it does something, which exemplifies an approach that is characteristic of Oxford rather than Cambridge. There, the big laboratories and high-tech facilities, have been banished to the suburban edge of the city but at Oxford, new building has deliberately been encouraged in the historic centre. The New Biochemistry lab’s deliberate juxtaposition with Deane & Woodward’s wonderful Museum of Natural History, a pioneering scientific building that also revolves around a top-lit atrium, is telling. There is visible here a consistent reinvention of a familiar format that has been stretched as far as the Guggenheim in New York. The Museum allows glimpses across its centre, its interest lies in the ease of orientation but also the creation of surprise as views set up unexpected adjacencies between objects. Even to the Victorians, this was nothing new, as this is a reinterpretation of the oldest collegiate model, the cloister, which was set up precisely to create a communal space of communication. Research has consistently show that ideas are born as much on the stairs as they are in the labs so it is the fine tuning and the generosity of those circulation spaces which create the conditions for fresh thinking. The New Biochemistry Building is a scientist collider.