Lovely laboratories

The Einstein Tower is a curious building. It stands in Potsdam, on the outskirts of Berlin, one of the few monuments of expressionist architecture, a movement which briefly blossomed alongside the dark visions of German silent film and the urban angst of painters in the Berlin of the early 1920s. There are no right angles here, just a streamlined concoction that looks as if it might have grown out of the bowels of the earth. In a present inured to sci-fi fantasies, the tower still appears strikingly futuristic and aesthetically unsettling.

The astrophysical observatory, with its telescope tower and subterranean laboratory, was conceived in 1919 to prove (or disprove) Einstein’s general theory of relativity, its sculptural form a direct echo of the radical reinterpretation of the laws governing gravity, space and time. Designed by Erich Mendelsohn, the building is a representation of a new universe in which space-time is curved, in which massive objects deflect time and distort space in their wake.

Architectural expressionism flowered only momentarily. Within a few years of the completion of the Einstein Tower in 1922, it was replaced by a rational functionalism, an architecture predicated on the grid, on mathematics and logic, on rigorous analysis and on treating design as a pseudoscience. The laboratory became, along with the factory, the ideal building type.

The tower’s telescope, housed in the roof and a copy of the architectural plan

Minimal, rational; all steel, concrete and glass, the lab offered an image of modernist perfection. Yet almost every lab ever built soon succumbed to accretions and additions as technologies developed at a breathtaking pace. The result was that buildings that began as pure, white and stripped-down as the technical clean rooms of the scientists, began to resemble trailer parks, overcrowded schools or malls. The irony was that the most astounding discoveries were usually made in the tattiest buildings. Whether it was Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, where Crick and Watson discovered the structure of DNA, or Los Alamos, where the first nuclear weapons were developed, the breakthroughs seemed to disprove the notion that there was any link between the purity of the building and the clarity of the thinking that went on inside.

Today, expensive new physics buildings are being planned all around the world. The question is, are they any different from – or better than – their shabby predecessors? Should they express something of the wonder of the world they are built to examine? And will they help answers to the biggest questions emerge?

Inside the observation and measurement rooms and the spectographic lab, located in the tower’s basement

Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT kicked off this new age a decade ago. The architect created a structure every bit as sculptural and, in many ways, even more ambitious than his radical Bilbao Guggenheim with a huge new building on the site of MIT’s former ramshackle Building 20. This had been a famous, ad hoc shed hastily constructed during the war which became a remarkable incubator for everything from Noam Chomsky’s linguistics to the beginnings of hacker culture.

Gehry’s blockbuster building did for labs what his Bilbao Guggenheim did for cities – a pivotal piece of urban design that dragged the presence of physics from the dispersed campus to the centre. The building, with its characteristically crumpled forms, its clashing materials and wonky planes does something similar to Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower: it questions the certainties of conventional architecture as an expression of the cosmos. It seems to defy gravity – to be constantly on the point of ­collapsing, full of movement and life.

The ground floor, meanwhile, is arranged as a series of deliberately urban spaces. Open and welcoming, the cafeteria is a social fulcrum, its plywood fitted furniture a casual riposte to the expensively sculptural façade, while the centre’s outside auditorium and public green spaces have become MIT landmarks. They are a very different proposition from the quads of Oxford and Cambridge with their nervous boundaries between the public and the private, where it is never quite clear whether you should be there at all.

Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall, Fermilab: Batavia, Illinois, US • High-energy physics centre • 1974 • Architects: DUSAF, in conjunction with Fermilab’s founding director Robert Rathbun Wilson

There has been a constant shift between the self-effacing and the self-consciously iconic. The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois is the result of one of the rare moments when physicists decided they needed a landmark.

The campus dates from the late 1960s, an optimistic period which saw massive investment in the US space programme. “Fermilab is the counter­example to all those boring labs,” Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist and former president at the Santa Fe Institute, told me. West has used his research into scaling and ecosystems at a molecular level to inform ideas about how cities grow and might be made sustainable. “Most physics labs are awful – a shambles, a rectangular box with a series of extensions,” he said. “They’re practical, but the [first] director of Fermilab, Robert Wilson, was a sculptor and he felt the building should manifest the idea of the great quest. It’s wonderful, but unfortunately it remains relatively unique.”

Inside Fermilab – the Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall’s atrium is 'one of the world’s grandest'

Fermilab’s Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall is a 16-storey tower with a sci-fi form, like the HQ of a space-age corporation. With one of the world’s grandest atria at its heart, it is a space intended to awe, its shape an echo of the Greek character lambda, the symbol of the radioactive decay ­constant in nuclear physics. Each experimental area of its campus is marked by a building or a ­landmark which attempts to express something of the science. The Meson Laboratory has a curving, vaulted roof which echoes the form and scale of the Tevatron particle accelerator tunnel beneath. The Neutrino Laboratory is topped by a geodesic dome of the type made famous by the visionary engineer-architect Buckminster Fuller, while the Proton Laboratory is marked by a curious tower, a kind of inverted black pyramid, its stairs contained in a glass tube recalling a model of the structure of DNA as they descend in a double helix. Even the pylons that carry the huge amount of power required to operate the particle accelerator are quirkily shaped like the Greek symbol pi.

The Globe, Cern: Geneva, Switzerland • The Cern visitor centre • Designed for Swiss Expo.02 • Architects: T Büchi/H Dessimoz

The European equivalent of the Fermilab, Cern, also has its iconic building, a giant timber globe. But this was an add-on, a structure brought over from the Swiss Expo of 2002 and re-erected as a visitor centre. I visited Cern just before its current atom smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, sparked into action. It was one of the pivotal aesthetic experiences of my life.

The detectors positioned along the 27km length of the circular particle accelerator are almost overwhelming in the beauty of their complexity and ingenuity. The extraordinary mass of cables and pipes, the complex tangles of copper, steel and primary colours are the perfect illustration of the high-tech machine architecture determined purely by function rather than aesthetics, and emulated by architects including Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano in buildings such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Architectural historian Charles Jencks, who worked with Cern on a proposal to landscape the lab’s surroundings, compared these detectors to the beauty and intricacy of a Gothic cathedral (apparently, Fermilab’s tower was also inspired by Beauvais cathedral in northern France).

Yet above ground, nothing of this sense of wonder is expressed. Why, I can’t help wondering, is that? “One reason,” says theoretical physicist Ben Allanach, “is that the machinery is so expensive. They’ve spent the money on the kit – and then it’s very difficult to justify extra costs.” Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the director-general of Cern, agrees. “It needs to be seen that the money is going into research. Most importantly, the architecture has to be functional.” But, he adds, “that doesn’t mean it has to be ugly”. Heuer also touches on another point that may begin to explain the plethora of physics buildings currently being designed or under construction. “It’s always easier to get money for a new building than for maintaining an old building,” he says. “So if you can design a building that is easy to maintain, that would be nice.”

What is fascinating about much of the architecture containing the most sophisticated and complex experiments conceivable is how mundane it is. Labs are underground, isolated from vibrations and noise; offices are small and surprisingly low-tech. And the most important piece of equipment is the blackboard. There are blackboards in the corridors, classrooms and cafeterias. The blackboard becomes the focal point – the physical space where thinking happens and can be continued by others.

If the blackboard is the window into the world of numbers, the critical spatial crux turns out to be the cafeteria. Every physicist I spoke to highlights the role of the café as not only the social but the intellectual centre of the physics complex. “Most physicists care about the laboratories,” says Cern’s director of communications James Gillies. “But they’d work in a shack if it had a good internet connection. The most important space, though, is the cafeteria. Here at Cern there are people there at any time of the day or night, talking.”

Clarendon Laboratory 2, University of Oxford: Oxford, UK • Experimental and theoretical physics laboratory • Still being designed • Architects: Hawkins\Brown. Above: A hand-drawn sketch of the lab; 'the driver behind these buildings is collaboration'. Below: 3D model showing the new building’s setting

“The key driver behind these buildings is collaboration,” agrees Oliver Milton, partner at architects Hawkins\Brown, the designers of a proposed new £30m physics building at Oxford university. As he sees it, “The problem in physics is that there is a split between the theoretical and the experimental physicists – a tension between the technical needs of the labs with huge pieces of machinery and the quiet spaces required by the theoretical physicists. So you need to create an environment which allows them to do their own stuff but then also to come together. So, while you make the offices and labs as good as possible, the building is really all about the spaces in between.”

A model of the façade

The result of this is a curious situation in which architects need to spend much of their time and budget on the circulation and core spaces that are often overlooked in favour of swanky offices, lobbies or conference rooms. The aim is to engineer collisions, much as in the particle colliders. The desired effect is to ensure that there are places – whether landings on stairs, breakout spaces in corridors or circulation spaces, cafés or other in-between areas – where scientists bump into one another, places they cannot avoid.

It sounds contrived but the communal spaces are the places where a spontaneously struck-up conversation might lead to the kind of breakthroughs that every institution is looking for. Says Milton: “When we’re looking at references, it’s often more useful to look at ad agencies or tech companies like Google or Apple.” Companies, in other words, that similarly try to engineer ­serendipitous social encounters.

The Graphene Institute, University of Manchester: Manchester, UK • University research laboratory • Still under construction • Architects: Jestico + Whiles. The south elevation, with its black-yet reflective, stainless-steel panels

The £61m Graphene Institute in Manchester might prove an interesting measure of where we now are with the architecture of physics. The building is dedicated solely to research on graphene, a form of carbon, the thinnest, strongest and most conductive material on earth. Graphene was isolated for the first time at the University of Manchester and the building is intended to reinforce the impression that the city remains on the cutting edge of research.

Above: the north elevation; Below: an artist’s impression of the walls around the central lab, which will be clad in a writable material to promote the exchange of ideas

I ask whether the nature of graphene has informed the architecture in any way. “There is some symbolism,” says Tony Ling, of the building’s architects Jestico + Whiles. “But it’s very abstract. The building is wrapped in a translucent stainless-steel veil which appears black but is also reflective. There is the mysterious quality of seeing something through something else.” To me, the designs, with their faceted, folded planes and a kind of stealth-bomber architecture, look depressingly generic, more like Jean Nouvel’s One New Change shopping mall in London than a site of radical science.

More successful aesthetically is the recently completed High Voltage Laboratory just north of Bilbao in Spain. Designed by ACXT Architects for electricity company Arteche, it is clad in highly polished corrugated metal and seems almost to disappear against the sky. Inside, a Faraday cage conducts and contains an array of extraordinary machinery. Its proximity to Bilbao, a city now defined by Gehry’s Guggenheim, seems to inform its architecture, as if Gehry’s sculptural plates had been straightened out in a massive electrical shock.

The High Voltage Laboratory: Bilbao, Spain • Testing laboratory for electricity company Arteche • 2013 • ACXT Architects

Bigger and eye-wateringly expensive is the huge French International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor or ITER project, where scientists are chasing the dream of replicating the way the sun makes energy: nuclear fusion. The site is in Caderache in Provence, and its €16bn budget makes it one of the most extraordinary building projects in the world.

Like the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, this will be a monumental piece of machinery, a container capable of generating – and containing – a mini sun. ITER’s HQ, designed by Marseille-based architect Rudy Ricciotti and completed last year, features a dramatic undulating façade. There are many more buildings planned for the site, some more extravagant than others, but the box containing the Tokamak (the plasma-filled doughnut-shaped ball-of-fire container) is disappointingly utilitarian, looking like a big, boxy waste incinerator. Yet here, together with Cern, we have buildings searching for the holy grails of science – the Higgs boson, or “God particle”, and the power of the sun. These really are our contemporary cathedrals, buildings embodying the power and strangeness of the subatomic world. Yet they express nothing of the wonder that the cathedrals tried to convey.

At the height of the Enlightenment, experimentation was inscribed into the very fabric of the city. As well as being architects, Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke were among the 17th century’s most eminent scientists and astronomers, and their buildings reflected their interests – London’s Monument, ostensibly a memorial to the damage wrought by the Great Fire in 1666, doubled up as a huge telescope.

Perhaps the problem is that, since the Enlightenment, the universe has become exponentially more complex. In science as in architecture, there is now, in the words of Charles Jencks, a new cosmology every week. Even if the standard model is, effectively, an architectural model of how things might be, the understanding that the microcosmic and macrocosmic work in completely different ways chimes more with a postmodern plurality than a single, coherent modernist response. It has led to an architecture of indecision and uncertainty.

Erich Mendelsohn already saw this in 1919 and the promise of his strange building has never quite been realised. Einstein visited soon after its completion. Mendelsohn eagerly awaited the great man’s verdict. Einstein is said, after a long period of silence, to have dismissively uttered a single word. “Organic …” He never went back.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture correspondent. To comment on this article, please email

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