The Architecture of Science

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 devel oping 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 wide-angle 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 outcomes.

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 long-term 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 displayed.

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.

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