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DESIGNER LABS:
Architecture and Creativity: Does Beauty Matter?

Jon Cohen

At a symposium on science and architecture held last fall at the University of Cincinnati, a high-profile panel wrestled with the ultimate question: Does the architecture of a laboratory influence a scientist's creativity and productivity? The short answer is, it depends on whom you ask.

The discussion, led by television talk show host Charlie Rose, included architect Frank Gehry, lab consultant Earl Walls, architectural historian James Ackerman, and Nobel Prize winners Paul Berg and Ferid Murad. No one made the case for ugly spaces. But Berg, who worked with the firm MBT Architecture in the design of the Beckman Center for Molecular and Genetic Medicine at Stanford University, said scientists often romanticize bad working conditions. "For a very long time, people thought you had to work under extreme, trying conditions in order to be creative--the image of the artist who works in the garret, cut off from all the finer things of life," said Berg. "I think that was a persistent attitude among many scientists." Although Berg conceded he could not prove that elegant settings enhance the quality of research, he argued that it certainly doesn't inhibit it. "I've yet to see anybody whose creative capacities diminished when placed in pleasant surroundings or a congenial atmosphere," said Berg.

Murad, who has done pioneering work on nitric oxide at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, had many reservations about linking his creativity to the architecture of his workplace. Murad said some of his most inspired scientific thoughts have occurred in the most unlikely places. "I honestly don't know where I collect and collate information," said Murad. "It can be bumping into someone in the elevator or the hallway or some international meeting or whatever." But new insights often come when he's away from work, "days or weeks later ... when my mind is clear and I'm under the car or I'm digging up a tree or beating on boards out in the garage."

Walls, who makes his living designing laboratories, said he is on the fence about whether a pleasant working environment improves creativity. "It's such a personal thing that I'm not sure I could ever say anything but maybe, maybe not," says Walls.

Gehry was not so equivocal. "If you keep out the light, mice are dwarfed," said Gehry. "So are people." He, of course, expects that the new Vontz Center that he designed for the University of Cincinnati will have a positive impact on the scientists who work there. "They can turn out the lights and put a sack cloth around their heads if they want to suffer a little bit, but they are, over time, going to experience a richness," said Gehry. "They will start to see how the sun falls in the atrium and how it plays with those curves. They'll start to see how the brick color was selected because at certain times of the day it has a pink glow and it's very pronounced and very interesting. They will understand that those curved walls are nicer for a person to stand against than a big brick straight wall. So this building will unfold and have a human relationship and will enrich them."

Donald Harrison, the University of Cincinnati provost who oversaw the building of the Vontz, offered a different reason why architecture should matter to scientists. "I do think [the Vontz Center] will help attract scientists here to the Midwest," said Harrison, emphasizing that Cincinnati does not have the climate of the West Coast or the intellectual mass of big cities back East. So, if the Vontz does foster creativity and productivity, the design of the building itself may have less direct impact than the fact that creative and productive scientists want to work inside it.


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DESIGNER LABS:
Architecture Discovers Science.

Jon Cohen
Science 2000 287: 210-214. (in News Focus) [Summary] [Full Text]


Volume 287, Number 5451 Issue of 14 Jan 2000, p 212
©2000 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Copyright © 2000 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.