I see that there’s a new biochemistry building at Oxford, written up here in Nature. It was designed by a London architectural firm, Hawkins\Brown (love that backslash, guys, so very modern of you), and according to the article, the design:
”. . .ensures that the 300 researchers working there communicate as much as possible. The traditional layout is reversed: here, labs are on the outside, divided by clear glass walls from the write-up areas, which are open to a vast, five-storey atrium. Everyone is visible. Open staircases clad in warm wood fly across the atrium at odd angles, and each floor hosts a cluster of inviting squashy leather chairs and coffee tables, giving the impression of an upmarket hotel.”
You can judge for yourself here. But as I was reading that, I kept wondering, where have I heard descriptions like this before? Oh yeah, the last time I moved into a new building. Actually, every single time I’ve moved into one, come to think of it. I was part of a gigantic corporate move in 1992 into what was billed as a “high-interaction facility”, which was nothing of the sort. And then at the Wonder Drug Factory, one of the new lab buildings had the whole research area behind a large glass wall; it was the first thing you saw when you came into the place. Unfortunately, since it was full of snazzy equipment, it became part of the standard tour for visitors (the combichem labs were largely abandoned by then), and the people working there sometimes felt like zoo animals. And my current building has the labs all around the outside walls, and a huge atrium in the middle of the building (to what purpose, no one is sure; it’s completely empty).
Most of the Nature article, though, is taken up with the artworks that were commissioned for the new building. I can’t pronounce on these without seeing them all, although the hanging birds display reminds me of a display I saw hanging in a shopping mall in St. Louis in the late 1980s. I do get a bit worried when I hear some artwork described as “rais(ing) questions about how we organize and view the world around us”, since that’s the worst kind of boilerplate artspeak. (Find a large abstract installation you can’t use it on). Another statement about how “if you have a greater degree of visual literacy, you reflect more on both the way you represent things, and also the way that may limit the way you think about them”, falls into the same vaguely depressing category.
“Time will tell if money spent on art gives a significant return in scientific discovery”, is how the article ends up. But how will we know? Set up a control building with no artwork at all, or one furnished only with the Pre-Raphelites? (Full disclosure – I’d rather work in that last one). My guess is that the people who work there everyday will gradually stop seeing the artworks at all; their biggest effect will be on visitors, for what that’s worth.
And as for laboratory building design in general, my suspicion is that there aren’t that many useful general design schemes. Once you’ve fallen into one of those slots, what will matter most for productivity will be the boring details about the size of the benches and hoods, the ease of using shelves and cabinets, the number and location of electrical outlets and sinks, and so on. As for interaction between the scientists, I agree that it does a lot of good: but how to force it? There seems to me to be a tradeoff between convenience and interaction – the most interactive buildings I’ve worked in were the ones that forced me, though a limited number of doors and stairs, to walk down long corridors past a lot of open (and rather cramped) offices and labs. Spread things out, put in a lot of access points, and people just won’t see each other as much.
So here’s the question: I’m sure that many of them can hurt it, but has anyone worked in a building that seemed to help discovery? Examples welcome, and feel free to link to pictures.