Last fall, most of the Oxford Biochemistry Department moved into a fancy-schmancy new building (imaginatively named “New Biochemistry”). A few of us stayed behind (have you ever tried to move a 6-magnet NMR facility?), and–to be totally honest–I can’t say that I’m too disappointed about this. Granted, the new building is notable enough to warrant a recent write-up in Nature due to its open design and various art installations. On the other hand, I think that most of the faculty, postdocs, and students in the department are probably more interested in doing serious science, so this is really a non-issue. More than that, the design of the building may even make various aspects of work more difficult than they would be in a more traditional building.
I should preface the following by emphasizing once again that I don’t actually work in the new building. So my thoughts are based on what I’ve heard from others who do work in the building and on my own impressions from my frequent visits to the building. I will say that as people have gotten used to their new surroundings, complaints have decreased somewhat in number, but they still persist. Also, I won’t comment at length on the artwork–which I’m ambivalent toward–but rather on the layout of the building.
The New Biochemistry building does have a fairly novel design. The center of the building is one large atrium. Stairways criss-cross this atrium at various interesting angles, and overall I find it pretty visually appealing. You can get a decent idea of what it looks like here. Surrounding this atrium is the building’s office space. Unusually, though, this office space is not closed off, but is totally open to the atrium. And, that is where the real problem lies.
The lobby of a building is a noisy place. Imagine placing your desk in the middle of one, and that’s basically what working in the new building is like. Headphones are a must, which is a bit counterproductive, considering that the whole point of this open design was to encourage socializing. Also, don’t count on having a private conversation about sensitive results–the postdocs in the lab across the atrium will hear every word.
Surrounding the office space, in the outermost ring, is the lab space. This, of course, is sealed off–as it should be. The thing about having the labs on the outside (with nothing but floor-to-ceiling windows separating you from the public outside) is that you feel a bit like you’re working in a zoo if you’re on the ground floor. However, New Biochemistry is located in the middle of the science area, away from major thoroughfares, so there really aren’t that many people peering in and looking over your shoulder while you work. In a sense, though, that’s kind of a shame, considering that the building is quite a visual experience (see pictures here and here). On the upside, you get a little more sunlight while in the lab (what little sunlight you can get in Oxford, anyway), so having the labs around the outside isn’t such a bad thing.
So, the New Biochemistry building isn’t all bad, but it’s not great for science. And, it’s not like these issues were totally unforeseeable. For example, Jim Hu and Derek Lowe, two science bloggers who have never seen the building in person, have raised some of the same concerns on their blogs. Clearly, the building could have benefited from a little more input from practicing scientists. It’s nice and all to have a fancy new building, but not if it’s going to get in the way of the reason that it’s there in the first place.