Scholars, scientists gather to discuss the intersection of science and architecture

How do architects design buildings—and the spaces between them—to best encourage creativity, inspire learning and generate discovery? Once the buildings are done, how can scientists make the best use of these new work environments?

UChicago’s growing array of architectural spaces served as a backdrop for the latest “Architecture + Science = Environment” joint speaker series on May 12. University faculty joined scientists, engineers and researchers from Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to engage many of the architects who designed prominent buildings and features on campus, including research centers, schools, the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library and the new Midway Crossings light bridges.


The University’s current building boom is a testament to changes in science and architecture as both fields evolve to embrace contributions from a range of disciplines.

“Over the years, architecture has changed to support research, which itself has become more open, interactive and integrative,” said Karen Hellman, associate division director at Argonne. For example, Argonne’s latest project, the $95 million Energy Sciences Building, is designed to accelerate the pace of discovery by bringing together interdisciplinary teams of researchers in a space that can be adjusted to accommodate an evolving, energy-related science agenda.

Architects and scientists are working more closely together, said Steve Wiesenthal, associate vice president and University architect. This is occurring as architects design “people colliders” that encourage scientists to interact in hallways, lounges and stairwells; as scientists work in buildings that are soaked in natural light; and as both collaborate on building design. For example, Argonne’s chemists will analyze and help select materials used in the Energy Sciences Building.

“As ‘archi-neers,’ we can’t operate without the help of experts who know the laws of nature and the scientific properties of materials,” said architect Helmut Jahn, CEO of Murphy/Jahn. He added that “archi-neering,” is the integration of architecture and engineering brought about by the development of new technologies and concepts in physics and science. The glass-domed Mansueto Library, which Jahn designed, is a prime example of this type of integration. 

The need to select and find appropriate materials is especially true with the current emphasis on sustainability and energy efficiency. Although the panelists agreed that the right materials and design could decrease a building’s energy needs by half, they lamented the fact that a building that houses, for example, a particle collider or advanced computing facility can’t achieve such gains because 80 to 90 percent of its energy consumption runs equipment that isn’t subject to structural design.

“It’s easy to get a LEED plaque for a building by using sustainable materials and scoring points with design features, but it’s difficult to reduce the energy consumption of a high-energy lab,” said Jeffrey Schantz, senior vice president and strategic director of Science + Technology at HOK.

Collected wisdom about collective spaces

Few research centers have paid as much attention to architecture as Fermilab, partly due to the artistic and scientific vision of its founding director, Robert Wilson. “Thanks to Wilson, Fermi has a unique identity and sense of place … its own design vocabulary, expressed through form, texture, light and color,” said Gary Van Zandbergen, engineer and architect at Fermilab. “Our architecture reflects the magnificence of scientific theories and findings.”

This notion of how the working environment can engage scientists is something Schantz has thought a lot about, having grown up near the legendary Bell Labs in Murray Hill, N.J., where researchers invented the transistor and laser. There Schantz saw the tremendous impact that a building can have on its occupants. “While they were creating the Communication Age, [the bold design of] their building told them they were inventing the future,” he said.

“Architecture can engage scholars and help them focus on what is extraordinary,” added James Carpenter, principal at James Carpenter Design Associates. “It can also enhance institutional identity and construct experiences.”

These perspectives will be put into practice in the design of the University’s William Eckhardt Research Center. It will house the University’s new Institute for Molecular Engineering, in addition to providing new facilities for the University’s globally recognized programs in astrophysics, astronomy, chemistry and physics. Both HOK and James Carpenter Design collaborated on the design.

As well as discussing lofty ideas, the panel addressed practical matters. “We need attractive buildings and spaces, but they also have to be functional,” Wiesenthal said. And Van Zandbergen noted a constant concern: “Will money spent on aesthetics result in less money for science?”

The panel also looked toward the future, where “sustainability will not be just an add-on, but rather the lens through which we see design,” Van Zandbergen said.

New materials and ideas will play increasing roles in the design of scientific buildings, according to Jahn. “We’re experimenting with the use of new building materials, including making facades out of fabrics, which would offer less heat exchange and more transparency,” he said.

Rafael Viñoly, principal at Rafael Viñoly Architects, played the role of provocateur and suggested that what really counts is user happiness. “Architectural theory and sentiments shouldn’t count as much as whether the user is happy,” he said. “Nevertheless, architects have more say [in building design] because they have great P.R., while scientists are underrepresented because they have terrible P.R.”

Viñoly designed Chicago Booth’s Charles M. Harper Center and is the lead designer of the New Hospital Pavilion currently under construction. The 1,200,000-gross-square-foot building will be a 10-story hospital focused on cancer, advanced surgery, high-tech imaging, the neurosciences and gastrointestinal procedures.

In the end, science could well inform the design of buildings by helping architects address the happiness factor, Wiesenthal said. “In the past, architects have relied on intuition rather than experimental truth. That might change now that science is getting better at measuring things. Human interaction with buildings and spaces is, indeed, key, so why not use scanners as someone walks through an environment to see how it actually affects their brain?”