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The Science of Togetherness
The first new building on Science Hill since the 1960s is all about linkages.

When Michael McKinnell, who, in 1987, was architectural adviser to President Benno C. Schmidt Jr., got his first look at Science Hill and its eclectic collection of buildings, from the 1923 neo-Gothic Sterling Chemistry Laboratory to Philip Johnson’s 1965 Kline Biology Tower, his reaction to the scene was a common one. “I had a sense of enormous anticlimax,” McKinnell explains. “I saw the Tower and was drawn to the top of the hill, only to find that there was a gaping hole in the composition.”

McKinnell, whose credits include City Hall in Boston and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, was called on to fill the gap, and he did so by designing a new building to serve as home for the rapidly growing department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry. This month, with a flurry of speeches and receptions, critics and scientists alike will have a chance to judge how well McKinnell has succeeded, as Yale officially welcomes the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Center for Molecular and Structural Biology.

The Bass Center, a three-story brick structure, cost $33 million, of which $20 million was donated by Perry Bass, ’37, ’93DHL, and his wife. It is the first building to rise on Science Hill since Kline’s completion, and it eliminates the void in the Kline courtyard by linking the Josiah Willard Gibbs Research Laboratories, a pale green, high-modernist box completed in 1955, with Sterling. If its planners are right, the investment in a new building even as Yale struggles to come up with the funds to maintain its existing structures will forge as many scientific links as it does architectural ones.

“The basic entity of life is the cell, and there’s absolutely no way to describe its function except in a molecular fashion,” says Robert Macnab, who chairs a department that has its intellectual roots in biology, chemistry, and physics. Molecule by molecule, atom by atom, MB&B scientists, using the high-tech tools of modern biology, are chronicling life’s chemistry. The work ranges from Joan Steitz’s pioneering studies in genetics to Robert Shulman’s recent discoveries of techniques to make molecular maps of human thought. Other members of the department, like Lynne Regan, are probing how proteins work, while Axel Brunger refines computer software that enables researchers to create images of molecules. Steve Smith is studying the intricate chemical ballet that enables humans and other animals to see at night. And William McGinnis probes the genes of fruit flies for clues to the secrets of human development. “You start off with a single fertilized egg and wind up with a complicated, beautifully functioning animal,” says McGinnis. “People have wondered for thousands of years how this transformation from disorder to order takes place.”

Rarified as such work may sound, it has far-reaching implications. Donald Engelman, whose work also focuses on proteins, is, like many of his colleagues, excited about the economic dividends that the molecular approach may generate. “We’re very likely looking at the future of the U.S. economy, the future of health care, and the future of agriculture,” says the researcher, who this fall returns full-time to the laboratory after administrative stints as MB&B chairman and acting dean of the College. “Very grand things may emerge from this work.”

But according to Macnab, the main justification for the Bass Center is not merely promising research. It’s also sociology. “The new building provides us with a more pleasant, efficient, and, most important, a more interactive working environment,” the chairman notes. “We’ve always felt very fragmented.”

Indeed. Since the department’s inception in 1969, MB&B investigators have occupied offices and labs in Kline, Sterling, and Gibbs, as well as in the Sterling Hall of Medicine. There are also MB&B researchers at the Boyer Center for Molecular Medicine and at Yale–New Haven Hospital.

While the department learned to live with its Balkanized geography, the day-to-day impact of the separation was “a real nuisance,” says MB&B’s Frederic M. Richards, Sterling Professor Emeritus. “It was difficult to communicate,” adds Dieter Soll, who studies plant genetics and at one time directed research groups on two different floors of Kline.

According to Thomas Steitz, who headed the department’s building committee and whose investigations of protein structure have direct applications in the hunt for anti-AIDS drugs, “There’s this public image that scientists are recluses who go off and do things by themselves, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Scientists interact constantly, collaborating and bouncing ideas back and forth. Science is extremely social-indeed, the productivity of many programs is directly proportional to the extent to which there can be good contact between and among laboratories.”

The new building will bring roughly two-thirds of the department’s 40-plus researchers together in one place (the remaining one-third of the MB&B faculty will remain on the Medical School campus). More important than the centralization is the fact that in this building interaction is supposed to happen by design. That, say scientists, is bound to help in their research.

Not that the department, even in its scattered state, could be accused of lollygagging. Last year, MB&B scientists generated 235 papers and attracted more than $9 million in support from such federal agencies as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, as well as private foundations, most notably the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Even so, ever since the department was cobbled together by linking like-minded faculty members from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Medical School, investigators have talked about doing something to remedy the split imposed by geography and necessity. “We came up with lots of ‘wouldn’t it be nice?’ proposals, none of which we ever put forward in a serious way,” says Steitz.

In 1985, however, HHMI, with which Yale already had an affiliation, decided to start a nationwide program in structural biology. From Hughes’s 17 member-institutions, six would receive significant funding for faculty, equipment, and a small building. As it happened, MB&B researchers were already prominent players in the hunt for discovering the chemical structures of proteins, enzymes, nucleic acids, and many of life’s other important molecules. The so-called WERMS group (the acronym comes from the first letters of the last names of the investigators: Harold Wyckoff, Engelman, Richards, Peter Moore, and Steitz) had worked in this area since before 1975 when the NIH provided a major grant, which has been renewed every five years.

HHMI was impressed and awarded Yale $4.2 million. But while it was relatively easy to hire more faculty members and to upgrade equipment, coming up with a new headquarters for what’s known as the “core laboratory” and its staff was another story.

Initially, the scientists suggested building a bridge between Kline and Gibbs. This idea, however appropriate as metaphor, was tabled when President Schmidt had Michael McKinnell undertake a comprehensive study of the building needs of Science Hill. As a result of the year-long review, which was completed in January 1988, Schmidt was presented with more than a dozen options. In the end, he decided that the best plan was to overhaul Gibbs, which will now house the core facility and a variety of MB&B offices and labs, and link it to Sterling with a headquarters for the department.

To avoid conflict-of-interest problems, architects who serve as master planners are usually not awarded building commissions for projects on which they advise. But Schmidt broke with convention to give McKinnell’s firm—Kallman, McKinnell and Wood—the job, and overrode the concerns of some about the firm’s lack of experience in designing scientific facilities. As McKinnell sees it: “There’s a lot of mumbo jumbo surrounding what are referred to as specialized building types, but architecture is not fundamentally about places, it’s principally about people doing things, and people don’t change that much. They have the same basic requirements, even if they’re doing different things in different buildings. I’m very skeptical about architects who claim that they know more about the way a building should operate than the people who will actually work there. One has to listen.”

McKinnell and his staff did plenty of listening. “We trained them a lot,” quips Steitz, acknowledging that the project involved a genuine collaboration between the scientists and the architects. “We’ve enjoyed working with Michael and his associates. They’re very creative, their taste is exquisite, and the building is gorgeous.”

Perhaps too gorgeous. There are grumblings that the Bass Center—with its elegant copper roof, brick façade, terrazzo floors, and dramatic marble-trimmed staircase—might be an example of form triumphing over function. Steitz rejects the charge. “If you have a building that looks like Gibbs, which is the height of no architecture, there’s a level at which it’s not pleasant to be there,” he notes.

Even the so-called extravagances, like the stairway and the floor, are more functional than they would at first glance appear to be. “The whole point of this building is to facilitate people interacting with each other, so one idea was to create a staircase that was attractive and pleasant to use, and where if you ran into someone, you would want to stop and talk,” says Steitz.

As for gracing some of the floors with terrazzo instead of vinyl tile, Steitz again invokes function.

“We know that Yale has not maintained its buildings in the past, so another goal was to use materials that would last, even if they cost more initially,” he explains. “The terrazzo cost an extra $40,000, but it will last practically in perpetuity. We see this as an extremely good investment.”

McKinnell, naturally, concurs. “It’s very easy, when the need arises, to build cheaply, but it’s a very ill-advised course, even with the horrendous budgetary crises that universities are facing,” he says. Universities, the architect notes, have “futures measured in centuries.”

Accordingly, McKinnell decided to build for the ages, but while the Bass Center is, like Kline, clearly a modern structure, it also makes references to Sterling’s Gothic architecture in a way that says that the building is part of Yale’s traditional architectural fabric. “We’re fascinated by the issue of knitting together the old with the new,” McKinnell says.

In so doing, the architects have paid close attention to the needs of the end users. “The key word is space and flexibility,” says Mark Biggin, an MB&B assistant professor. “We designed the labs to be able to expand and contract as people’s research needs change.”

The Bass Center is also designed to accommodate the department’s teaching needs, which were poorly served in the past. “We had to go around hat-in-hand to various departments to get teaching space for both undergraduate and graduate courses, and this caused a certain amount of agony in our department,” notes Steitz, taking in the new building’s auditorium with a sweep of his arm. “This is pretty classy.”

Whether it is big enough remains to be seen. The lecture hall can hold 96 students, but MB&B’s largest lecture course routinely attracts more than that. The department, with its 85-plus majors (up from around 60 several years ago, and gaining on the roughly 120 students now majoring in biology), is growing quickly, but budgetary constraints required some compromises. Steitz and his collaborators made cuts, and the committee squeezed the existing space to make it more efficient, putting, for example, cabinets for equipment in corners that had been boxed off to hide pipes.

But though the department was forced to live with an auditorium that may prove too small, Steitz drew the line at one cost-cutting move. “We’ve never had any department public space,” he explains, noting that MB&B faculty meetings and other gatherings were held in a less-than-inspiring room in Gibbs. From his perspective, the jewel of the Bass Center is the third-floor meeting area, which, with its window framing East Rock, has one of the best views on campus. “At one stage,” says Steitz, “this room disappeared from the drawings and wound up as someplace filled with air handling equipment. I said, ‘You can’t do this—this is the heart of the building.’ The public spaces, the places where people interact and have both structured and informal contact, these are critical.” The meeting room stayed. “I can’t think of any aspect of the project that isn’t better—and mostly, much better—than what we had,” concludes Steitz. “This is going to be great.”  the end


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