"The Unfolding of Great Possibility: Dedicating a New Space for Science at Indiana University"

Dedication of Multidisciplinary Science Building II
Courtyard outside of Multidisciplinary Science Building II
October 22, 2009

Introduction: Redefining Scientific Laboratories

In the early 1960s, American architect David Allison wrote, “Laboratories should look like laboratories, and the scientists who will live in them must wage war to make them so if the imprint of the scientist is to prevail.” 1

The building that we are dedicating this afternoon, however, redefines what laboratories should look like and how scientists will operate within them. Far from a battleground, Multidisciplinary Science Building—or MSB II—is a monument to collaboration that promises to yield scientific innovation.

MSB II joins a generation of buildings across the country and around the world that grow out of the fertile ground where architecture and science meet. Just two years ago, on a visit to the University of Queensland, I toured the Queensland Brain Institute. This magnificent facility combined a soaring multi-story atrium, carefully designed laboratories, and communal spaces that encouraged conversation and exchange.

In the United States, the concrete and teak of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute; the looming blocks of I.M. Pei’s Mesa Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research; and Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at M.I.T.—likened by him to “a party of drunken robots”—represent the vast aesthetic possibilities that speak to the beauty, seriousness, and joy of scientific discovery. 2

These exteriors serve as inspiration, but ultimately the real scientific work takes place inside of the buildings, and not just in the laboratories: in the hallways, in the elevators, in the lounges, and in the offices that line the building and are filled with light. 3

MSBII: Balance Between Function and Form

MSB II belongs to this generation of scientific facilities that balance function and form and build human interaction into the design. 4 Constructed of Indiana limestone and fieldstone, this building fits seamlessly into the Bloomington campus landscape.

With architecture that has become a trademark of IU Bloomington, MSB II will be home to twenty-first century science. Like the award-winning Simon Hall (once known as MSB One), this new building has been designed from the ground up to foster collaborative interdisciplinary scientific research.

From the slab cut floor in the basement, which reduces vibrations, to the gothic language of the exterior, this building pays homage to the stability and strength of scientific rationality and logic. It also is a serene and calm space, filled with light, with its atrium open to the sky. The weight of the scientific world balances against the lightness of the heavens.

Such is the great range of the research that will take place within those walls. MSB II will be home to geochemists, biogeochemists, geographers, and neuroscientists, all aiming to unlock the mysteries that are both around and within us.

The mere fact that the building unites researchers who were once spread out across campus—in Simon Hall, the Geology Building, the Student Building, the Psychology Building, and SPEA, to name a few places—will create a sense of synergy and connection. The space will foster the collaborative, cross-disciplinary research necessary to fully address the complicated scientific questions modern researchers are trying to answer.

The crucial importance of multidisciplinary research in the case of economics is superbly attested to by the work of the recent Nobel Laureates Oliver Williamson and IU’s own Elinor Ostrom, when The Economist magazine wrote, “Their win reminds economists that borders between disciplines, like those between the firm and the market, can be profitably crossed.”

Such is also the case with the geoscientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and others who will fill this space with a myriad of research projects. This range is reflected in the changing colors of the building’s interior—from the earthy greens and browns on the lower floors to the blues as the building ascends towards the sky. Highlighting the terrazzo floor of the atrium and visible from every level, an unfolding fern frond symbolizes the life and potential that fills this space.

A Spirit of Collaboration

This building has grown out of a great spirit of collaboration that dates back to the strong life sciences infrastructure developed by IU’s sixteenth president Myles Brand, who lost his heroic battle against cancer just last month. It is a tribute to his vision and leadership that Indiana University continues building on the momentum that he started during his tenure.

I would also like to recognize the great energy and determination that Lisa Pratt, Provost’s Professor of Geological Sciences, has brought to this building project, planning for which started four years ago. As chair of the MSB II Design and Oversight Committees, Lisa has dedicated countless hours to this project, as have many of her colleagues who are greatly looking forward to moving into these new facilities.

I would also like to mention the extaordinary efforts of the late Michael Walker, whose energy, enthusiasm, and intelligence are imprinted on every aspect of the neuroscience program and facilities in this building. I would also like to acknowledge, with deep gratitude, our good friends Jack and Linda Gill for their exceptional generosity to Indiana University and their lifelong passion for education. They recognized—well over a decade ago—the power of interdisciplinary research when they made their extremely generous gift in support of biomolecular science.

Their longstanding support of such collaborative research—and their vision for its amazing potential—has helped lead us to this day. Our thanks also go to Jack for his continuing service to the university as a member of the IU Board of Trustees.

Finally, I would also like to express our gratitude to the Lilly Endowment, a longtime supporter of Indiana University. Over the last few years, the Lilly Endowment has offered extremely generous support for our life sciences initiatives. That support has come in the form of $155 million to support the Indiana Genomics Initiative. Another grant of $53 million established the Indiana Metabolomics and Cytomics or METACyt Initiative.

And more recently, the Endowment provided $26 million in funding for IU to help expand Indiana’s intellectual capital. A portion of that generous grant as well as part of the METACyt funding has supported the construction of this building. We are deeply grateful for the Endowment’s continued investments in Indiana University. Their generosity has facilitated ever-greater achievements for IU students, faculty, and staff, and for the university as a whole. Here, too, I should mention the vital efforts of Ted Widlanski, the Director of METACyt, who has ensured it has been a vigorous supporter and participant in this project.

Conclusion: Revealing Great Possibilities

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Berg once described the way in which scientists tend to romanticize difficult working conditions, believing that such trials stimulate creativity and productivity. But ultimately Berg said, “I’ve yet to see anybody whose creative capacities diminished when placed in pleasant surroundings or a congenial atmosphere.” 5

Frank Gehry, winner of the Pritzker Prize—the Nobel for architects—reinforced Berg’s point. He said, He said, “[Scientists] 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 [from their surroundings]. . . They will start to see how the sun falls in the atrium. . . They’ll start to see how the color was selected . . . This building will unfold and have a human relationship and will enrich them.” 6

Although he was speaking of a different facility, his words could not be more apt as we dedicate Multidisciplinary Science Building Two. Over time, may this building unfold—like the fern in its atrium—to reveal the great possibilities of collaborative interdisciplinary science. Thank you very much.

Source Notes

  1. Leslie, Stuart W. “‘A Different Kind of Beauty’: Scientific and Architectural Style in I.M. Pei’s Mesa Laboratory and Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 38.2 (2008): 173-221. Page 174. Original Quote: “Laboratories should look like laboratories and the scientists who will live in them must wage war to make them so if the imprint of the scientist is to prevail.”
  2.  Rimer, Sara. “Putting a Smile on Sober Science.” The New York Times 13 May 2004. The New York Times Website. Accessed 19 Oct. 2009. www.nytimes.com
  3. For more information on the social impact of building design, see the work of Indiana University sociologist Thomas F. Gieryn. His essay “What Buildings Doâ€ï¿½ (Theory and Society 31 (2002): 35-74), for instance, suggests the various ways build environments affect and reflect social dynamics, and his example of the Cornell Biotechnology Building is particularly apt in relation to the dedication of IU’s latest multidisciplinary science building.
  4. Cohen Op. cit.
  5. Cohen Op. cit.