How does architecture affect academic study?

Jay Merrick visits a cutting-edge lab in Oxford to find out

Can architecture promote intellectual excellence? On a cramped site in Oxford, in the university's new biochemistry building designed by Hawkins\Brown, even eminent boffins can't resist putting a new spin on Le Corbusier's modernist declaration that buildings should be "machines for living in". The head of biochemistry, Professor Kim Nasmyth, says: "Actually, this building is an interaction machine."

And so it is. This is £55m worth of academic architecture designed to promote relaxed social and intellectual contact and make abstract art a central strand of the biochemistry building. The scientists picked up on the possibilities of the building's art content rapidly, stimulated by the notion that it would trigger the creative questioning of evidence.

The big physical move here is the building's core space, a multi-storey atrium with floors above and below ground, asymmetrically zigzagged with stairs, and awash with natural light. It's a piéce de rèsistance that can also be seen as an ironic, postmodern take on the layout of Victorian prisons. Except that there is no resistance here, and nothing cell-like about the ambience.

Instead, the architecture delivers a series of constantly shifting vistas, interspersed with views of art. In the central void, Annie Cattrell's flock of suspended birds have the iridescent colours of the plasma generated in the first moment of the Big Bang; on one wall, massive colour photographs by Peter Fraser capturing the demolition of two Victorian buildings on the site, and the erection of the new one; the carpeting is bright with Tim Head's computer generated bio-molecular marks and circles; and, on the building's glazed facades, protruding coloured glass fins, and an ectoplasmic regiment of shapes based on Rorschach ink-blots.

Professor Jonathan Hodgkin, along with Professors Mark Sansom and Nasmyth, was closely involved in developing the building's artistic content, and was particularly taken with Fraser's photographs. What he says about them neatly captures the creatively academic value of Hawkin\Brown's art strategy: "There are three things that make Peter's images of interest to me as a biochemist. First, they are concerned with what things are made of. Second, he is documenting a process of physical change, which is what we do as scientists. Third, the mark of a great scientist is to see what everyone else sees, but to think what no one else has thought."

In his study, two things register with surreal force: a stuffed seagull, wings outspread and beak-down in a big cardboard box; and a German research paper on phenotypes filled with computer generated representations of the physical properties of organisms. They might have been painted by Paul Klee, who declared in 1920 that "art does not reproduce what is visible, but makes things visible". Klee knew nothing about biochemistry, and Hodgkin is not an artist; yet their language of insight is more or less identical.

And it appears to be a language capable of generating a significant degree of academic alchemy. The biochemistry department's administrator, Dennis O'Driscoll, acknowledges that, even with leading international research status in key biochemical fields, attracting excellent graduate researchers has become ferociously competitive. The architecture of the new building – which exposes different pockets of research activity, most of it directly bathed in daylight – has created an innovative sense of community which, he says "forces people to meet one another".

Nasmyth puts it with more brio. His "interaction machine" is a place "where we don't need email. We have 'a-mail': ambush mail! You can see someone you want to speak to. If you can't see where they are immediately, you can find them in a minute or two."

That brings us to the original question: can architecture promote academic excellence? With pleasure Nasmyth points out that, in the latest trawl for outstanding postgraduates, every one of the faculty's top-five choices have accepted research posts in the new building. But the hot picks have not surprised Hawkins\Brown, who are involved in other Oxford academic building proposals. And they certainly wouldn't have surprised Paul Klee.

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