Monday, April 27, 2009

A Building Devoted to the Science of Space Captures Its Mystery

Chronicle of Higher Education: "If the California Institute of Technology asked you to design a new building for its astronomers and astrophysicists, you'd want it to be as smart and as interesting as they are, wouldn't you? That, clearly, is how the architecture firm Morphosis greeted Caltech's commission for the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics some five years ago.
Morphosis, led by Thom Mayne, created a building nearly as intriguing as the night sky. The brown cement-panel exterior is a mysterious misalignment of planes interrupted by unexplained rifts. The interior is a whole geometry's worth of angles and volumes that come together at a staircase stolen from some other dimension. It's a staircase that wants to be both a telescope and what a telescope sees — and it easily takes the prize as American higher education's most fascinating set of steps.
The 100,000-square-foot building, which opened early this year, brings together some 300 faculty members and graduate students who have been scattered across Caltech's campus. Among them are both astronomers, who study the skies, and astrophysicists, who create the instruments astronomers use. The building is meant "to anneal the cultural schism" between members of the two groups, says Andrew Lange, chair of the division of physics, mathematics, and astronomy, as well as to bring together graduate students who until now may have been more familiar with objects in other galaxies than with peers on other research teams.
"We've put shoulder to shoulder people developing technology in all different wavelengths," Lange says, although he admits that some of the building's tricks are decidedly low-tech. For instance: Coffeepots and mailboxes have been "strategically located" to encourage the building's occupants to interact.
Cahill's top two floors hold faculty and graduate-student offices and conference rooms, connected by hallways that veer off slightly this way and that, and whose walls are not always plumb. One of the conference rooms — Lange's favorite — is open to passers-by so that graduate students "can learn as they walk," he says. Corridors that cut across the building from front to back are referred to as "stitches" and end in small social spaces with floor-to-ceiling glass — these are the rifts visible in the exterior. The first floor is split between public spaces — a 148-seat auditorium and a small library — and suites for engineers who run several observatories that Caltech operates."

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