15 The Architecture of Science

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When you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in

isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within

it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent,

and more whole.

—Christopher Alexander

Back to the future. Suppose for a moment that you are the chair of a

faculty team at Cornell University in the year 1905 and are charged

with the responsibility for developing plans for a new science building.

You, however, have the foreknowledge that this building is the

one in which a young man from Columbus, Ohio, Thomas Midgley

Jr., will one day learn his basic science. Further, you know what he will

do over the course of his career. You have only this one chance to affect

the mind of the man who will otherwise someday hold the

world’s record for banned toxic substances by formulating leaded

gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons. What would you do? Before developing

the building program, could you engage your faculty colleagues

in a conversation about the kind of science to be taught in the building?

Would it be possible, in other words, to make architecture a derivative

of curriculum? Would it be possible to signal to all entering

the building that knowledge is always incomplete and that, at some

scale and under some conditions, it can be dangerous? Is it possible to

make this warning similar to but more effective than the Surgeon

General’s warning on a pack of cigarettes? If you succeed, the catastrophes

of lead dispersal from automobile exhaust and the thinning of

stratospheric ozone from chlorofluorocarbons will not occur.

Of course, the design of science buildings alone is not likely to influence

young minds as much as teachers, peers, and classes do, but it

is far from inconsequential. Frank Lloyd Wright once said that he

could design a house for a newly married couple that would cause

them to divorce within a matter of weeks. By the same logic, it is possible

to design science buildings in such a way that they contribute to

the estrangement of mind and nature, deadening senses and sensibilities.

Indeed, this is the way we typically construct buildings. Typically,

science buildings are massive and fortresslike and give no hint of intimacy

with nature. Their design is utilitarian, with long, straight corridors

and graceless, square rooms. Neither daylight nor natural sounds

are permitted. Windows do not open. Air, expensively heated and

cooled by the combustion of fossil fuels, is forced noisily through the

structure. Toxic compounds vented from laboratories drift toward

neighborhoods downwind. Neither the building nor classes taught in

it give any reason to question human domination of nature. Both celebrate

the advance of human knowledge, giving no hint of the things

we do not or cannot know and little cause for humility in the face of

mystery. Accordingly, the building conveys the mistaken impression

that every advance of knowledge is a defeat for ignorance. It is dedicated

to one particular discipline and, if profitable, to the commercial

exploitation of knowledge. Architecture in such buildings does nothing

to soften or improve human relationships in such buildings that

tend to reflect fear—of making a mistake, of failure to receive tenure

or promotion, or merely that of anonymity. Conversation in offices,

lecture halls, and corridors occurs within a narrow envelope of disciplinary

language and assumptions, and often has little in common

with that of the humanities.Visitors coming into such buildings often

feel that they are in an alien place. On some campuses, entrance is

granted only to those with a security clearance. The surrounding landscape

is paved over for parking. And it is widely believed that this is a

good place for the young to learn science.

I believe that it is possible to design science buildings so well that

they can help promote conventional smartness, as well as a wideangle

view of the world and a love for the creation. Architectural design

is unavoidably a kind of crystallized pedagogy that instructs in

powerful but subtle ways. It teaches participation or exclusion. It directs

what we see, how we move, and our sense of time and space. It

affects how and how well we relate to each other and how carefully

we relate to the natural systems from which we extract energy and

materials and to which we consign our wastes. Most important, it influences

how we think and how we think about thinking. For architecture

to instruct in positive ways, we must be willing to question old

assumptions about the human role in nature that are often embedded

in the design of science buildings just as they are embedded in a curriculum

with roots going back to Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo.

But no such assessment can take place within the safe and comfortable

confines of any single discipline. It is as much a conversation

about ethics, politics, economics, and sociology that affects how

knowledge is used in the world as it is about biology, chemistry, geology,

or physics. It could not be conducted in the jargon of any one discipline

but only in the common language. It would require a high

level of honesty. It is a conversation about what, given our present circumstances,

is worth knowing and what’s not. It is, in other words,

about our priorities in an increasingly perilous time in human history.

Such a conversation would take time and patience, and its outcome

would likely offend those inclined to defend science at all costs on the

one hand and those who would abolish it on the other.

To illustrate the problem, our children now have several hundred

chlorinated chemicals in their fatty tissues that do not belong there

and with unknown effects (Thornton 2000).We do know, however,

that cancer, reproductive problems, and behavioral disorders are increasing

everywhere. Exposure to chemicals is ubiquitous, coming

from plastics, farm chemicals, gasoline additives, carpets, building materials,

and lawn chemicals. Some 100,000 chemicals are in use

worldwide, some of which are long-lived and can be found in routine

samples of soil, air, and water. This contamination happened in large

measure because of a kind of promiscuous chemistry promulgated by

petrochemical companies aided and abetted by academic scientists

who trained the chemists hired by petrochemical companies, and

thereby influenced the larger moral, political, and social framework in

which chemistry would be practiced. Many academic scientists made

their peace too easily with those who used scientific knowledge carelessly.

This is by no means an argument against the study of chemistry.

But it does raise serious questions about the kind of chemistry we

teach and the larger ecological, intellectual, moral, and political

framework in which chemistry is taught and practiced. It is possible,

in other words, to practice chemistry as if evolution, ecology, and

ethics do not matter, but it is not impossible for them not to matter.

Some will respond by saying that the chemistry we now practice,

Superfund sites and all, is the best of all possible chemistries and that

all of the disadvantages are merely the price we must pay for a high

standard of living and the unavoidable result of advancing human

knowledge. But as we learn more about the effects of exposure to

chemicals as well as alternatives to chemical use, both responses ring

hollow. Are there problems for which the use of chemicals is not

an appropriate solution? Farming, for example, has become heavily

dependent on chemicals with ominous economic, ecological, and

human results. But we know of alternative and better farming methods

that rely on ecological relationships, cultural information, and a

sophisticated knowledge of chemistry, not petrochemicals. Is there

another kind of chemistry to be taught and practiced? Some think so

and believe that the model is found in the various ways that nature

does chemistry.We make long-lived toxic compounds in large quantities

and broadcast them by air and water. Organisms in nature, in

contrast, often make toxic compounds, but in small amounts that are

contained and biodegradable. In billions of years of evolution lots of

strategies were tried, many of which were discarded. What remains is

a set of exquisite, time-tested strategies. By comparison, industrial

chemistry, about a century old, is clumsy and destructive. Accordingly,

the rule of thumb ought to be that if nature did not make it, we

should not either. Exceptions to that rule ought to be made cautiously,

on a small scale, and for reasons that will appear to be good

and sufficient to those who will eventually bear the consequences.

The standard for chemistry modeled along the lines of natural

systems is no longer whether it is possible or profitable to make, but

does it fit within the larger evolving fabric of life on earth. Is it toxic?

Does it break down? Do we know what it will do in the world over

the long term? And where does it fit in a just, caring, and competent

society? The standard would no longer simply be that of the successful

experiment, but that of ecological health. A chemistry curriculum,

accordingly, would feature the study of evolution, ecology, biology,

politics, and ethics. It would equip students with guidelines for

what elements should not be joined together or taken apart and why.

Students would be required to master Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Mary

Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Melville’s Moby-Dick. Indeed, a better

kind of chemistry is beginning to emerge in fields of industrial ecology

and among companies pioneering concepts such as “products of service”

that are returned to the manufacturer to be remade into new carpet

(Benyus 1997, McDonough and Braungart 1998). But these concepts

have yet to take hold in the teaching of academic chemistry or

in the petrochemical industry (Collins 2001).

Lest I appear to single out chemistry unfairly, let me hasten to

add that similar observations could be made of the other sciences and

social sciences that too easily accommodated themselves to the defense

establishment, oil companies, biotech companies, and global

corporations. My point is not to establish guilt, but to propose a more

scientific (which is to say, skeptical) science better suited to the task

of protecting life.

We survived a century of dioxin, DDT, chlorinated hydrocarbons,

Superfund sites, ozone holes, and nuclear bombs, but with a far

smaller margin for error than we might have hoped for.We are entering

a new era in science in which genetic engineering and biotechnology

are taking center stage.Will this era prove to be less destructive?

I doubt it. On the contrary, I think it has the potential to be even

worse.We are on a course to repeat many of the same kinds of mistakes

in biology that were made in the development of chemistry and

for some of the same reasons having to do with hubris, ignorance,

greed, and the reductionism that removes problems from their larger

context. One can easily imagine books that will be written 50 years

hence that will echo themes found in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

(1962), Lewis Mumford’s The Pentagon of Power (1970), and David

Ehrenfeld’s The Arrogance of Humanism (1978).

In this light, how might the design of science facilities help us to

avoid repeating old mistakes? First, the design process should begin

not by addressing spatial needs and disciplinary priorities, but by

rethinking the curriculum taught in the building. The overwhelming

fact of our time is that we are in serious jeopardy of “irretrievably mutilating”

the earth and causing “vast human misery” in the process

(Union of Concerned Scientists 1992). Our students will need, in

Richard Levins’s words, a science that emphasizes “wholeness and

process in complexly connected networks of causes that cross the

boundaries of disciplines” (1998, 7). They will need the intellectual

agility to combine reductionist science with a larger view of causality

that includes other species, mind with body, complex interactions,

and the intricate ways in which social patterns and hierarchies affect


Because conversation at this depth is unlikely to happen in competition

with classes, e-mail, fax machines, telephones, and committee

meetings, the process of design must begin with faculty, students,

and others meeting away from the busyness of the campus. Given the

normal state of campus politics, it would be wise to engage the services

of an adept facilitator. The goal is to honestly discuss the relationship

between the concepts and skills that students will need to master

in the coming century in order to protect and enhance life. Discussion

about program details and architecture should follow. What at first

appears to be a difficult and perhaps threatening conversation has the

potential to generate intellectual excitement, greater collegiality, and

a higher level of science education and research.

The actual building design should say to our students what we

would like them someday to say to the world. Since it is irresponsible

as well as foolish to waste energy, the building ought to use energy

with the highest possible efficiency. Since we are nearing the end of

the fossil fuel age, the building should be powered largely by advanced

solar technologies. Since it is irresponsible to discharge toxic

wastes, laboratories should be designed with a zero discharge standard.

Since it is irresponsible to destroy forests, all wood used in the

building ought to be harvested from those that are managed for longterm

sustainability. Since it is irresponsible to use materials that are

hazardous to manufacture, install, or discard, the building should be

constructed from those that will be one day be returned to manufacturers

for recycling or will decompose to make good soil. Since it is irresponsible

to destroy biological diversity, the surrounding landscape

should be designed to promote biological diversity. And since it is irresponsible

to foster hypocrisy, the building should be designed to

make the curriculum hidden in architecture and operations part of

the formal curriculum. To that end, data on building energy performance,

energy production,water quality entering and leaving the building,

indoor air quality, and emissions should be collected and publicly


Instead of the serial design process described in chapter 14, ecological

design requires bringing the architects, engineers, landscape

designers, ecological engineers, energy analysts, and others together at

the beginning of the project. The increased costs of front loading can

be more than offset by better integration of technical systems, improved

performance, and a better fit between the building and the

landscape (Rocky Mountain Institute 1998). The results are greater

efficiency and lower energy costs over the life of the structure. It is not

enough to change the process, however, without changing the financial

incentives that drive it. Fees for architects and engineers are typically

calculated as a percentage of the total project costs of HVAC

equipment installed in the building. There is, accordingly, little incentive

to minimize project costs or to maximize efficiency. In contrast,

fees can be calculated on the actual building performance so that the

savings from higher levels of efficiency are shared between the institution

and the designers (E Source 1992).

Finally, science buildings are almost always utilitarian, designed

to be, as French architect Le Corbusier (1887–1965) would have had

it, machinelike. It is essential to add another dimension to the architecture

of science buildings.How, for example, might the present-day

counterparts of Thomas Midgley Jr. be warned about the fallibility of

human intelligence and the consequences of using knowledge carelessly?

We sometimes memorialize tragedies after the fact in monuments

to victims of human folly like the Vietnam Wall and the Holocaust

Memorial. Art, sculpture, inscriptions, and visual displays

should be used to warn students of future ecological tragedies. They

should say unequivocally to eager and impressionable minds that the

truth they seek is always elusive, partial, complex, and ironic; the

world is not a machine and cannot be dismantled with impunity; and

that whatever is taken apart for analytical convenience must be made

whole again. Both architecture and curriculum should alert the young

to the possibilities and limits of knowledge as well as the obligation to

see that knowledge is used to good ends. Finally, the architecture of

science buildings and the curriculum taught in them ought to reflect

awareness of the fact that we, scientists and lay persons alike, stand at

the edge of a vast mystery that exceeds human intelligence. D. H.

Lawrence (Bates et al. 1993, 3) said it this way:“Water is H2O, hydrogen

two parts, oxygen one. But there is also a third thing that makes it

water and nobody knows what that is.” The world would be a better

place had Thomas Midgley Jr. graduated knowing that neither intellectual

brilliance nor technological cleverness could ever solve the

riddle of the third thing.