In this paper, published in Historical Studies and Natural Sciences, Stuart Leslie chronicles the efforts of two prominent researchers—Walter Roberts and Jonas Salk—to inspire two lab-building projects to represent and foster scientific ideals. Roberts, an atmospheric scientist, oversaw the building of Mesa Lab in Boulder, Colorado and Salk, a medical researcher and virologist, oversaw the building of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.
Each man had a vision of how science should be practiced and represented. And each committed a great deal of energy into realizing their visions in the architecture of their labs. They worked with their architects as partners rather than just as clients, pushing back against architectural constructs of how science should be practiced and represented. The process was demanding on both researchers, but Leslie concludes it resulted in greater intellectual coherence between the labs and the science they housed. He also points out that the two buildings offer rare examples of laboratories also celebrated for their architecture.
The enduring research productivity in the Salk Institute and Mesa Lab would seem to provide a testament to the foresight in their design as functional forms for the research they house. Among the most influential research institutes world-wide, for example, the Salk Institute was ranked number one in neuroscience and behavior in 2009 and second in molecular biology and genetics in 2008. And in 1997, the Mesa Lab won an award from the Colorado chapter of the American Institute of Architects that recognizes buildings that still serve in their original capacity after more than 25 years.
The Mesa Lab and Salk Institute’s continued functionality as successful labs might be attributed in part by Roberts and Salk’s efforts to not entomb the practice of science in the architecture of their labs. Roberts repeatedly insisted the future needs of science are unpredictable. He stressed that the design of Mesa Lab should avoid any “architectural or organizational straight jacket” insisting that its design be somewhat malleable and flexible, allowing researchers to punch holes in or anchor things to walls and floors accommodate their changing needs.
Salk also insisted on a design with an eye towards flexibility, characterizing labs as living organisms in need of spaces that are “capable of differentiation in response to evolving needs”(p211). Consequently, labs in the Salk Institute were built as huge loft spaces with unfixed furniture and no walls, so researchers could arrange the space to meet their needs. Even the ceiling lights were on tracks so they could be moved around. And when the needs of his lab grew, Salk insisted an addition to the institute over the strong objections of his architect, Louis Kahn.
Tensions also emerged between the researchers and architects over the architects’ initial monolithic designs. While Roberts’s architect I. M. Pei envisioned a grand tower that would stand as a monument to science, Roberts interpreted large towers as cutting off serendipitous encounters by arranging people vertically rather than horizontally. Large towers also clashed with his desire to avoid hierarchical and bureaucratic arrangements. He instead wanted more of a village design. Eventually a compromise was reached in which five short towers were built that were connected underground. Similarly, Salk sent Kahn back to the drawing board when Kahn proposed a model that dwarfed the landscape with two clusters of massive towers.
Roberts and Salk had overlapping, but different ideas about what kinds of researcher interactions produce the best research. Both identified collaboration as a key ingredient, but differed in their ideas about between who and under what conditions that collaboration should take place. Roberts, for example, wanted a lab that would encourage “working in small groups with a wide-open door to the world”. And felt that the lab’s work should compliment not compete with university research. Salk’s vision of collaboration was more inward looking and elitist, he sought to attract researchers who were the best and brightest in their fields and shelter them from the distractions of competition and grant seeking. Rather than a place where collaborations between small groups took place, he saw the Salk Institute as a place where collaboration would occur between a collective of individuals. He also wanted it to represent a sanctuary where researchers could largely ignore the outside world and distractions of competition and grant-seeking, and where they would not have to answer to anyone other than scientific collogues.
Leslie says that in participating in the design of the Mesa Lab and Salk Institute, Roberts and Salk also participated in the architecture of the disciplinary fields the labs represented—atmospheric sciences at Mesa Lab and biomedicine at the Salk Institute. This point did not come across particularly clearly to me in the evidence Leslie offered. He discusses how researchers ultimately used the spaces within the labs, but the connection between these uses and how science in these disciplines is practiced remained a little fuzzy. It seemed to me like he actually talked more about how the architectural design did not influence the practice of the discipline in the ways that the researchers had hoped. For example, researchers at the Salk Institute ultimately were as distracted by competition and seeking funding as researchers anywhere else, and the nooks and crannies in the Mesa Lab that Roberts hoped would be used for serendipitous encounters for collaboration went largely unused.
For our discussion I hope we might have an opportunity to reflect on this aspect of Leslie’s article with my fist question for this seminar this Friday. I also leave for us to discuss, about how these two examples illustrate Leslie’s larger point that architecture necessarily stabilizes science.
1) How do you think the building of the Mesa Lab and Salk Institute may have ultimately influenced the disciplinary sciences they housed and represented as Leslie suggests?
2) In what ways to the stories of how the Mesa Lab and Salk Institute were designed and built illustrate Leslie’s point that architecture necessarily stabilizes science?
3) What makes a place look and feel like a research center?
4) Consider what you know about the architecture of WID, for example, it’s height, arrangement of interior spaces and the public accessibility and visibility of interior spaces. What do you think the architecture of WID communicates about who its inhabitants are and what they do?
About the Author: Stuart Leslie is a Department of History of Science and technology professor at John Hopkins. His research interests in science history include science in industry, in the university, and cold war era science. Leslie was also one of Greg Downey’s advisers and encouraged the young, bicycle-impassioned Downey in his dissertation work on 19th century telegraph messenger boys. Perhaps Greg will treat us to some stories about Leslie and some bicycle repairs.