‘No evidence’ that luxury laboratories lead to better science

New book explores proliferation of ‘starchitect’-designed facilities 

January 12, 2019
barcelona
Source: Alamy

Are some of today’s leading laboratories more like luxury resorts?

“Prime tourist landscapes are given over to the production of science,” said Chris Smith, associate professor in architectural design and technê at the University of Sydney. A prime example is the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park, launched in 2006 by Pompeu Fabra University together with the city council and the government of Catalonia.

“Every level and every laboratory opens on to large decks with ocean views,” explained Dr Smith. “Its basement level contains a full range of sporting facilities adjacent to the animal houses. There is also an underground connection directly to the beach. It operates its own beach volleyball tournament effectively staffed by the scientists at the laboratory.”

Other examples feature what Dr Smith calls “all the tendencies of the lifestyle laboratory”. Columbia University’s Jerome L. Greene Science Center, opened in New York in 2017, for example, is “replete with large light atriums and open spaces for informal meetings, flexible lecture space and a top-storey terrace. It also has a ‘wellness centre’, retail and restaurant facilities.”

There was a time when laboratories were well-equipped but largely functional buildings, and scientists were assumed to have little interest in glitzy design or fine dining. All that has changed drastically, in Dr Smith’s view, as “the huge burgeoning investment in the biosciences over the last 20 years has led to a lot of ‘starchitects’ being engaged by institutions, including universities, to produce these spaces...Instead of architecture being framed as a functional container of laboratories, it’s now framed as driving science, collaboration and ideas in science itself...These laboratory buildings function not only to ‘house’ research but as beacons of a kind – attracting top scientists, funding bodies, philanthropists and the public.”

It is probably a sign of the times that the University of Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2012 for the best British building.

This striking shift towards laboratories that are “all about context, lifestyle, amenity and aesthetics” is explored by Dr Smith and co-editors Sandra Kaji-O’Grady and Russell Hughes, of the University of Queensland, in Laboratory Lifestyles: The Creation of Scientific Fictions, which is forthcoming from MIT Press.

Perhaps the most striking examples are those run by charismatic entrepreneurs such as biotechnologist Craig Venter, whose carefully cultivated image (his adventures apparently include “snorkelling naked in the Sargasso Sea surrounded by Portuguese men-of-war”) is matched by a vast office at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California: “Every other room…is, in effect, an antechamber, there to dramatise the procession the visitor or employee makes from entry to their audience with its namesake.”

But why shouldn’t we just celebrate the fact that scientists now have more pleasant lifestyles and surroundings?

“Scientists seem to be part of a rather grand experiment,” responded Dr Smith. “These buildings are usually [justified] in terms of socialising scientists and creating interdisciplinary linkages, and the idea that we will get accelerated discovery by the chance encounters that happen in these spaces. There is just no evidence that that is the case.”

As with medieval cathedrals and 19th-century museums, mass investment had led to “proliferation of these sorts of structures: temples to science. Whether the cathedrals produce better or worse religion, it’s hard to say.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Luxury labs: does science benefit? 

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