Sunday, 17 January 2010

the new building of the oxford biochemistry department

(picture taken from here)

in 2008, the biochemistry department of oxford got a new building: a flashy £47 million construction highly praised and recently decorated with at least one architectural award. it is supposed to attract excellent researchers from all over the world, and inspire ground-breaking research among the workers with its open-plan design...

is this really true? here is the opinion of an oxford biochemistry post-doc:

the first thing i'd like to say: of course it's nice to work in a new building rather than an old one. old research buildings are often as ugly from the outside as they are from the inside, with labs cluttered with old equipment that's either broken or that people have forgotten how to use, and with office-shelves filled with previous workers' abandoned belongings collecting the dust of decades. our old building was exactly like this, absolutely not pretty to look at, with stained carpets, dirty windows and spiderwebs (sometimes even huge spiders). but i have to say, it was alright to work there. everything important was under one roof, labs and offices close together, bathrooms in close range, kettles, microwaves, sinks and water fountains in the offices and even a common room to get a bit further away from your desk. it was adequate for the work that we had to do. not beautiful, but practical.

now we work in "new biochemistry", which is not ugly in the least. it is an L-shaped building of 6 levels, two underground and 4 above, with a huge sky-lit atrium in the centre breaking through all floors. the different levels are connected through the main staircase which crosses the atrium, with the flights of stairs arranged irregularly, a bit like the revolving staircase of hogwart's school of witchcraft. through the atrium flies a flock of plastic birds on glass-fibre strings, semi-disturbing because some of them are siamese twins or look as if shot in mid-air, but still kind of nice to look at. around the atrium, the office spaces or "write-up areas" form little niches, filled each with six rows of a total of 24 desks and two rows of cupboards flanking them. here and there you find a PI (i.e. principal investigator's) office or admin areas. the labs are located on the outer side of the building, with all-glass fronts so that people walking past can watch us work or so that the workers can see some daylight. the outside of the building is decorated with coloured glass panels projecting out of the window-glass front. the inner side of the L is decorated with rorschach test pictures, i.e. ink stains whose interpretation gives information about the observer's psyche. (they could also be slices of animal brains or images of vulvas... i wonder what that says about my psyche! by the way, out of all these possibilities, the latter probably has the most to do with biochemistry....)

when i first set foot into the new building, i thought: how are we supposed to concentrate with our offices in the atrium? and how are we going to manage to work at such tiny desks?
unfortunately, these initial concerns were justified. it's so hard to concentrate!! we hear the lab phones of every single floor ringing through the atrium, including people's mobile phones (which also causes envy towards those who actually have reception). because we are cramped in so closely, we hear pretty much every word spoken in our write-up area. plus that of other people in the atrium! when people really need to concentrate on writing, reading or thinking, then it's not surprising that the atmosphere can get pretty tense.
even if it was completely silent in the atrium, the small size of the desks already makes working difficult. the desks are so small that you can't easily place your laptop and your labbook on the same desktop. i solved that problem by buying an imac, but even with the keyboard i struggle to place everything on the table. the desks are also so narrow that two people cannot easily sit next to each other in front of one computer, which is necessary when you show someone your data. the second person has to invade into the neighbour's deskspace, which can get annoying for them. there are not enough chairs either, so the extra person either has to stand up or take someone else's chair... you see the problem? depending on how stressed people are on any given day, people start arguing. we've really argued a lot more since we moved.

i once discussed the lack of space with our head of department. he simply replied: when you have to write a paper, you work form home anyway...
i'd say £47 million well spent!

of course there are many other things to talk about apart from the offices: the labs, the cafe, the artwork presented in the building, the general access to the building, other offices, communal areas... i think i'll mention those another day!

finally i just want to say that after a few months in the new building, the visual appeal of some of its features kind of grows on you. but this still does not compensate for the simple lack of practicality.

we often get groups of official visitors in new biochemistry (one time even the prime minister), who are shown around the atrium and lab areas. they admire the architecture and get an impression of how science works nowadays. sometimes the guests even take pictures of us at our desks from the staircases. working in this building every day, you start to feel like an extra in this presentation.
one major purpose of this new building must have been to project a certain image of science to the outside world. that has certainly worked. but getting on with your research kind of ended up in the background...

ps: related articles about new biochemistry and similar building trends in science you can find here, here and here.

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