Science and Architecture: Citing Sites of Rigidification

This writeup is a result of my having to do something for a seminar entitled Science and the Image in a class I'm taking called "Science and Culture". When I started to think about what the ‘image’ might mean for science, I became more interested with the relationship between art and science, and from there I started to think about the relation of architecture and science. So, rather than focusing simply on Science and the Image (the image as diagram, photograph, etc.), I would like to talk about how architecture can affect, or has affected, science.

It is relatively obvious that the spaces we work in affect the sort of work we are capable of doing. Think of, for example, the large fast food kitchen as compared with the kitchen at a small café: both spaces are geared towards different sorts of products, and are thus organized in particular ways. However, the situation becomes a little more complicated when we consider how the workspace of the scientist may affect the sort of ‘facts’ (or articles if we take Latour seriously) that the scientists are capable of producing. In the recent history of science studies (philosophy and history of science included) we have seen an increasing move towards the ‘socialization’ of science. That is to say: we have been increasingly concerned with determining exactly how science relates to, and is a part of, society. There are numerous ways to look at how socio-political biases work their way into the work of science from a number of perspectives: various feminisms, post-colonial (anti-colonial) critiques, and other more obvious examples of socially influenced science: the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, the anti-Semitic statistical analyses of Karl Pearson, Lysenkoism, etc. I would like to extend this process of “socialization” to include sociological accounts of architecture and space.

Most of the information I have read about the relationship between architecture and science has come from an excellent collection of essays called The Architecture of Science. Before I took this book out of the library I had never really thought of either the theoretical or practical implications of space, buildings and architecture for the scientific project except maybe when reading people like Foucault and Bachelard, but those thoughts were in an entirely different vein (power structures, etc). A number of the essays in the book provide (I think) interesting questions about and arguments for the powerful sociological and psychological effects of working space (usually the laboratory) upon science and scientists. Thomas Gieryn in his essay “Two Faces on Science: Building Identities for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology” asks:

What is sociologically interesting about buildings for science? Possibly this: Built places materialize identities for the people, organizations, and practices they house. Through their very existence, outward appearances, and internal arrangements of space, research buildings give meanings to science, scientists, disciplines, and universities—for those who work inside and for those who just pass by. Emphatically, different buildings announce different things about the stuff inside, which lies that the design process is at once a negotiation of architecture and identities and an eventual settlement of distinctive physical spaces and social faces … The connection between buildings and identities has not gone completely unnoticed by sociologists. Research divides loosely along micro and macro lines: Some look at how individuals create and sustain a sense of self by dressing up their personal spaces; others look at public monuments and other places as tangible translations or expressions of collective values. For social psychologists, identity is the meanings attached to oneself, chosen by that person and/or attributed by others. As an answer to the question “Who am I?” identity is an irreducibly social phenomenon (rather than merely personal or psychological) in ways that implicate buildings and other material objects in its construction. Identities give substance to social roles, as they translate structural positions into meaningful features of self: Just what is it for me to be male or female, Black or White, scientist or plumber? Gieryn 423- 424.

Gieryn’s argument can be paraphrased (though somewhat simplistically) as follows: Identity is an “irreducibly social phenomenon”, members of society (generally) interact with each other within or around buildings, thus: buildings must play some part in the construction of “identities” (scientific or otherwise). The rest of my seminar will be concerned with fleshing out, via an example, just how the ‘workspace’ might affect the production of scientific theory and discourse.

The example I've chosen is from the realm of medicine and the hospital. Allan Brandt and David Sloane state in their essay “Of Beds And Benches: Building the Modern American Hospital” that:

The spatial organization of the nineteenth-century hospital reflected fundamental beliefs about the place of the patient within the hierarchy of medical discipline and practice. The hospital’s façade and structure reflected its larger goals of bringing order to the disordered, health to the sick, morality to those who had lost their way. The structural organization permitted oversight and clarified an increasingly articulated medical hierarchy. According to Assistant Surgeon John S. Billings, “To be an ‘inmate’ was to barter independence for security, to subject oneself to the physical and moral authority of trustees, administrators, and attending physicians.” (Brandt and Sloane, 284)

Thus, the way the hospital was organized architecturally (much like a prison of the day) says a lot about the type of medical organization that its inhabitants expected or were capable of. It would have been impossible for the same sort of rigidly hierarchical medicine to have been performed in a more openly designed hospital, or in a smaller home-care sort of setting. The authors state, even more specifically, that:

Nineteenth-century hospitals also reflected architecturally the miasmatic theory of disease. Along with primary concerns about order and charity, concerns about the space between patients, the flow of air through the wards, and ventilation between the wards dominated discussions of hospital design well into this century… Even as designers attempted to counteract miasmas, however, the concentration of illness under one roof in hospitals continued to be a major cause for concern. Deep and persistent worries about the dangers of hospitals were voiced as the institutions grew in stature and function. (Brandt and Sloane 284).

Here we can see that, in addition to large scale, over-reaching theoretical structures like the rigid separation between patient (object) and doctor (neutral subject), architecture can also materialize/rigidify very specific scientific beliefs, like the miasmatic theory of disease. Given this one example, I’m going to rashly construct a somewhat simplified process that I think helps explain how science is affected by the architecture that it inhabits as well as how that architecture is in turn affected by science.

Step 1
Architecture can lead to the rigidification of theory.

It seems that if we already have a certain scientific theory (the miasmatic theory of disease) and we proceed to build a generation of hospitals based on that miasmatic conception of the spread of disease, then we will certainly be less likely to question the miasmatic theory. Rather, we will be more likely to ignore (or never come into contact with) the sort of facts that would cast doubt on our architecturally rigidified theory.

Step 2
Theoretical rigidification (caused by architectural choice) can, in the long run, affect the general choice of theory.

In the long run, I think that architecture can influence the choice of research programmes as well. For instance, if we devote our architectural and technological energy (and funds) to building massive projects like the Superconducting Super Collider in Waxahachie, Texas, we are less likely to be interested in devoting our theoretical energies to smaller scale projects. The choice of architecture is, to some extent, the choice to back a single theory. In building something a giant particle accelerator (costing in the billions of dollars) you have already assumed that such a project is worth investing in, to the detriment of other sorts of projects. So, once you have ‘inhabited’ that building, you will be less likely to take seriously projects that are opposed to your theory/architecture, or would require an entirely new architecture. In this way, I think (especially for contemporary science) strong parallels can be drawn between theory-choice and architecture-choice.

Step 3
Theory choice affects Architectural choice.

The general trends in research programmes can lead to general trends in scientific architecture, thus making new architecture (and theories) less and less likely through a reciprocal/circular relationship. This theory seems to be lent credibility by history (especially in physics and astronomy) where since early Greek physics there has been a steady march towards bigger more inclusive theories, coupled with bigger, meaner testing grounds for those theories. From Aristotle’s contemplation, to Galileo’s (possibly fictional) Tower of Pisa, to the massive particle accelerators and observatories we see today.

So, in conclusion, though it may seem a little over-the-top to assign so much importance to architecture in the scientific project (and, really, it is a little much) I do think that it plays an interesting (if not all determining one). I’ve just glazed over the surface of a literature that seems to be growing and in the future might have as much impact as some of the other critiques that we have looked at this semester. In any case, it is something that needs to be explored further.


Thomas F. Gieryn, "Two Faces on Science: Building Identities for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology" pp. 423-458 in The Architecture of Science edited by Peter Galison and Emily Thompson (MIT Press, Cambridge, 1999).

Allan M. Brandt and David C. Sloane, "Of Beds and Benches: Building the Modern American Hospital" pp. 281-308 in The Architecture of Science edited by Peter Galison and Emily Thompson (MIT Press, Cambridge, 1999).

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