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, the “knowledge production centers” of our physical environment, 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?
The Lab Timeline
Purpose-Built Labs: Mid-19th Century to Present
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.