The Relationship Between Science and Art, Explored Through Laboratory Architecture

The Sainsbury Laboratory (Image courtesy Stanton Williams Architects)
The Sainsbury Laboratory (Image courtesy Stanton Williams Architects)

BRIGHTON, UK — Tucked behind an aging mews of terraced houses in the historic city of Cambridge is a hidden modernist science facility. Negotiating tight security and an immaculate grey gravel drive, expectations climb as you approach an understated entrance in a warm yet sleek façade. The straight lines inspire; a horizontal accent calms. The building has also been sunk a little to root the botanical research lab in the present. If you ever held childhood aspirations toward being a scientist, this structure is designed to revive those dreams before you even cross the threshold.

This is the Sainsbury Laboratory, winner of the UK’s prestigious Riba Stirling Prize for architecture in 2012. Things get even better inside, where sight lines stretch the length of the comma-shaped layout and scientists work in elevated labs with glass walls. The profusion of colored plastic materials makes the practical business of science look like such fun. Central to the building plan is a coffee machine and a row of squared off window boxes where researchers can catch up and collaborate. This is the friendly side of science. The structure even houses three ambitious artworks.

Susanna Heron, "Henslow's Walk" (2011) (All photographs by author unless noted)
Susanna Heron, “Henslow’s Walk” (2011) (All photographs by author unless noted)

Visible from a dark auditorium in one prong of the building are relief sculptures carved into the French limestone that, along with pale concrete, glass, steel, and oak, characterizes the building. Abstract in appearance, they are in fact inspired by the plant samples of a venerable Cambridge scientist of yore. Artist Susanna Heron borrowed more than 4,000 photos of plant samples collected by John Stevens Henslow in the 19th century. Heron’s work might appear purely decorative if it wasn’t so very tactile. To engage with this piece is now to reach out for botanical knowledge. It forms a daily reminder of the shared and historic mission of all those who see it day in day out.

Like many a Cambridge college, the lab is constructed around three sides of a quadrangle. Olive trees grow in the courtyard alongside unexpected works by William Pye. These add a bit of drama to the endeavors inside — they’re in constant motion. Pye has sunk fountains into silos with toughened glass lids. The jets hit the bulging glass and pour back down to complete their life cycle again. At night the courtyard is enchanted with lit LEDs, a colorful accent that echoes the lab equipment and the colors of the plant world.

William Pye, "Starburst" (2011)
William Pye, “Starburst” (2011)

The final piece of work comes all the way from the Galapagos Islands. Painter and printmaker Norman Ackroyd was dispatched there by philanthropists David and Susie Sainsbury. He came back with books full of watercolors that he has translated into 40 stainless steel etchings of the flora and fauna that he has described as “the essence of Galapagos splashed on a wall.” If so, this is an essence from which the eye rebounds. On their 23-foot-long mirrored surface outside the cafe, Ackroyd’s subjects almost withdraw from sight, a comment perhaps on their threatened existences.

Norman Ackroyd "Galapagos" (2011) (All photographs by author unless noted)
Norman Ackroyd, “Galapagos” (2011)

You might not even notice these pieces, particularly if you were hellbent on crunching some fresh DNA data. They are cherries on the cake and, by extension, architecture would be the icing; science is the fundamental base. The official book on the facility sets out this pecking order in both structure and title: The Sainsbury Laboratory: Science, Architecture, Art (Black Dog Publishing, 2011). It is comprehensive, informative, and well illustrated, but inevitably skewed towards the science and scientific heritage of this university building, which backs onto the 40-acre Botanical Garden. After all, the basement of the Laboratory is home to the plant samples of no less a scientist than Charles Darwin.

Bear in mind, though, that Darwin’s voyage upon the Beagle was surely as reliant upon art as it was upon science. During this famous trip. he needed illustrators to clarify and record his observations. And later investigations into the emotional lives of primates and dogs were in part inspired by Victorian animal art by the likes of Sir Edwin Landseer. What’s more, Darwin’s mentor and the founder of the Garden, the above-mentioned  Henslow, was also an accomplished illustrator. If this work by Heron, Pye, or Ackroyd reminds us of anything, it should be these frequently overlooked instances of overlap between scientific and artistic practice.

But do they? One can’t help feel this art is too tasteful, afraid to distract from the purposeful aspect of the magnificent building. Whoever wrote the check for this $132 million construction obviously recognizes the importance of architecture in fostering the work of science, and clearly there was money available. So, with all due respect to the work in situ, when you look across the courtyard you can’t help feel there‘s room for something with a little more chutzpah, perhaps along the lines of a Superflat floral bloom by Murakami or, at a push, a Jeff Koons puppy.

Scientists at work in the Sainsbury Laboratory
Scientists at work in the Sainsbury Laboratory

As an essay by Steve Rose in the book from Black Dog points out, science, art, and architecture are as entangled as grass roots. Future breakthroughs at the Sainsbury Laboratory will owe plenty to Stanton Williams’s cutting edge building, and modern architecture owes plenty to science in turn. (New building techniques were of course the result of 20th century advances in the production and mass production of concrete and steel.) Meanwhile this particular example of modernism owes plenty to art. Architectural partner Paul Williams has a background in museum, gallery, and exhibition design. Perhaps that is why the building appears to cry out for more art.

Antonello da Messina, "St. Jerome in His Study" (Image via wikipedia)
Antonello da Messina, “St. Jerome in His Study” (Image via

If that were not enough, the book reveals that the design team were inspired by a wide range of artists. These include Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida, British painter-sculptor Ben Nicholson, and a painting by Antonella da Messina entitled “St. Jerome in His Study,” which hangs in the National Gallery. It finds a real echo in the elevated and fully glazed working areas visible from the building’s internal “street.” Those pioneers of scientific progress inside the contemporary structure may not be aware that their  new station in life was prefigured by a mystical fifteenth-century artwork.

Of course, it is only in terms of funding that art, architecture, and science are in real competition. In some circumstances the disciplines can lead to fruitful exchanges. If this cannot happen in a touchy-feely plant lab, then where can it? Even the lowrise staircases are wide enough to allow for a stop-and-chat. The Sainsbury Laboratory and accompanying book foster a spirit of cross-pollination. They invite you to imagine a building where scientists might even work alongside artists and architecture. Now that would be a breakthrough.

The Sainsbury Laboratory is located on Bateman Street in Cambridge, U.K.

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