Science is a dizzyingly diverse enterprise. The buildings that house scientists, however, have long been numbingly uniform. Picture a laboratory. You are probably envisioning one of the regular, modern, rectangular boxes plunked down on university campuses and research parks across America since World War II.
To the delight of many architects and scientists, however, the lab-in-a-box is losing favor. In recent years, more science buildings have begun to feature flexible work spaces, large common areas, fancy atriums, irregular shapes, and other relative extravagances once unseen in the workaday laboratory.
These changes are not just ornamental. Increasingly, they come from the drawing boards of architects who have been pondering how scientists think and work. Some architects have even reached a conclusion not always present in the history of lab design: Scientists are not just cogs in a research machine, but highly creative—and highly social—thinkers.
“It’s not a directive on the part of the designer,” says the New York-based architect Rafael Vinoly, who has recently designed several high-profile and innovative laboratories. “It’s really just a response to the hidden requests of people all over the world, who have been tortured by buildings that have not really changed in 50 years.”
With last week’s opening of Frank Gehry’s new MIT laboratory, the Ray and Maria Stata Center, Boston-area residents have the chance to see a shiny new example of this trend for themselves, courtesy of the world’s best-known architect. Still, Gehry’s energetic (if still unfinished) sprawl of tilting towers, cylinders and blocks raises an unanswered question: Does innovative architecture really help produce innovative science?