The Laboratory Timeline

Architecture for Scientific Research

Past, Present & Future

The Laboratory Timeline was born from a few fundamental questions. As architects, we had noticed that the lab building typology had not been comprehensively researched and that the available literature on the subject was scattered. We felt compelled to investigate this typology and the ways it has been shaped by research priorities and architectural ambitions over time, and we began by asking:

How have research labs evolved from solitary spaces in unlikely locations to the scientific communities and major segments of institutional fabric that they are today?

What can be learned from labs designed and built in previous generations, and even within the past decade, to best inform our building designs?

What is happening now in scientific research that can help shape the labs of the future?

Prologue

1 Gregor Mendel’s Lab—a monastery garden, 1865

2 Rockefeller Institute Medical Research Labs, 1917

3 Leicester University Engineering Labs, 1963

4 Columbia University Neuroscience Labs, 2017

The Lab Timeline examines the building typology from its roots in the mid- to late 19th century, when purpose-built structures for scientific research were just beginning to emerge, to present-day lab buildings, and, finally, ahead to the future. We should be reminded that the architecture for scientific research is only about 160 years old—an extremely young building typology in relation to domestic architecture, temples, churches, theaters, schools, and museums. We have not been at this for very long, and the rapid pace of scientific discovery and inquiry will continue to inform our research buildings of the future. In order to understand what the future may bring for science and research buildings, it’s important to understand how we ended up where we are today. There are two important reasons to examine the architectural evolution of the lab building. The first is that the basic goals and aspirations of the individuals and institutions of the past are often very similar to what they are today but exist under very different technological, institutional, societal, and political conditions. This is meaningful architecturally because we can generate new architectural concepts from historical examples and recondition them to the present. Marie Curie’s “shed lab” in Paris might have been less than ideal—but imagine it reinterpreted today with new conviction and intent. The second is that one can’t ignore that great science and research occurred in certain buildings and spaces that are now legacy and that those environments engendered discovery and invention. Certainly the individual researcher’s imagination or the research group’s collective minds and inquiries played a critical role, but the design of the physical environment must have contributed in some way too. The Lab Timeline therefore tracks the history of scientific discovery and invention alongside the history of lab architecture. The physical location of the “Fly Lab” in Columbia University’s monumental Schermerhorn Hall and the building’s proximity to museological collections as well as other natural-science departments surely played a role in the great discoveries in genetics that occurred there. The lab itself was cramped and tiny, but perhaps that helped accelerate the research by encouraging frequent conversation amongst the research team during their long days in the lab. Can this example be applied to new planning and design ideas for labs today? Perhaps not literally, but certainly the model exists as a source of inspiration.

As architects of lab buildings we are committed to designing and building for the future of science. It’s been said that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”1 Invention requires hard work, sustained inquiry, a grounded understanding of what came before, and, perhaps, a bit of luck. We believe architecture can proceed on a similar path to arrive at successful and inventive solutions. The Lab Timeline attempts to capture that spirit of invention and provide inspiration for research labs of the future.

Historical Introduction
The Scientific Method and Early Labs

Aristotle

4th Century BCE

Long before labs existed, the scientific method had to be contemplated. Aristotle—as depicted in Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, at center in blue (next to Plato)—was one of the first great philosophers to ask fundamental questions about nature and to examine the world around him. He is the father of modern science and the scientific method—the process of observation, collection, classification, and discovery. In opposition to Plato, who believed in mysticism and idealism, Aristotle was a realist and empiricist who sought to observe nature through the sober eyes of science.2 He wrote treatises on biology, including the taxonomy of many living organisms, as well as physics and astronomy.

Aristotle set up a school in Athens to rival Plato’s academy: The Lyceum. This was his answer to Plato’s Academy and its mirror image.3 It consisted of a garden, a temple to the nine muses, lecture rooms, a library, and rooms with tables for collecting and dissecting biological specimens.

Alchemy

Alchemist’s chamber, 400 AD–1300 AD

Long before labs existed, the scientific method had to be contemplated. Aristotle—as depicted in Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, at center in blue (next to Plato)—was one of the first great philosophers to ask fundamental questions about nature and to examine the world around him. He is the father of modern science and the scientific method—the process of observation, collection, classification, and discovery. In opposition to Plato, who believed in mysticism and idealism, Aristotle was a realist and empiricist who sought to observe nature through the sober eyes of science.2 He wrote treatises on biology, including the taxonomy of many living organisms, as well as physics and astronomy.

Aristotle set up a school in Athens to rival Plato’s academy: The Lyceum. This was his answer to Plato’s Academy and its mirror image.3 It consisted of a garden, a temple to the nine muses, lecture rooms, a library, and rooms with tables for collecting and dissecting biological specimens.

Experimentation
Chemical Lab, circ. 1750

This continued into the 19th century, when European and American labs often depicted the lone researcher working in less than optimal conditions—in attics, basements, or sheds without much access to natural light or critical services like plumbing and ventilation.Emphasis shifted to experimental reproducibility and rationality.

This continued into the 19th century when labs in Europe and America still often depicted the lone researcher in his or her lab in less than optimal conditions— in attics, basements, or sheds without much access to natural light or critical services like plumbing and ventilation. Scientists began to demand better facilities. Louis Pasteur, one of the great “microbe hunters”6 who brought the world some of the first vaccinations, pasteurization, and (most important?) better wine, was eloquent on this matter and implored politicians and universities for improved facilities. This helped to usher in the purpose-built research lab that could accommodate groups of scientists. The late 19th century saw the lab become visible, recognized, and institutionalized. It is here that The Lab Timeline begins.

Research
Michael Faraday’s lab, London, 1852

I implore you, take some interest in those sacred dwellings meaningly described as laboratories. Ask that they be multiplied and completed. They are the temples of the future, of riches, and of comfort. There humanity grows better, stronger; there she can learn to read the works of nature, works of progress and universal harmony, while humanity’s own works are too often those of barbarism, of fanaticism, and of destruction.

— Louis Pasteur, 1868

The Lab Timeline

Purpose-Built Labs: Mid-19th Century to Present

The Buildings

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Dedication

The Lab Timeline was conceived by Craig M. McIlhenny AIA