Peer through an architectural

Peer through an architectural "telescope"

Right across the street from campus, on the way to the gym, there’s a distinct red building. It’s the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. It’s somewhat ironic that this building, which looks like it went through an earthquake, is the astronomy building. Across the street, there’s a building with a telescope dome on top, and it is for seismology. In fact, this dome is a solar dome that opens up and follows the sun throughout the day to project images of the sun inside and also to bring sunlight into basement.

I signed up for a talk by Thom Mayne of Morphosis, the LA-based architectural firm that designed Cahill. He has brought to life several tech school buildings nationally and overseas. After Thom Mayne’s talk in Hameetman Lecture Hall, there was an Q and A session where controversies surrounding the building came up. Apparently many members of the community had thought that the building was ugly. But after the architectural tour held by Alan Rice, I realized that Cahill was more thoughtfully designed than the haphazard exterior suggests.

Like many of Thom Mayne’s works, Cahill is architecturally intricate on front, and the labs are left as plain, practical open spaces. Drawing upon the tradition of astronomers looking through telescopes to see things, people in the building are also looking through tunnels in the building. The atrium was an intersection of what Alan compared to clear straws piercing through a milk carton (where the milk carton is the building).

The lecture hall itself held a lot of architectural details. The entrance to the front of hall is a downwards ramp that guides the presenter towards a giant photograph of the Palomar telescope, and then swerved left to the front of the hall. This photo was taken by Cahill himself and a photographer friend when Caltech took him on a tour to convince him to fund this building. The rows of seats are given extra space so that audience members can turn around to address each other. There’s a glass window that becomes opaque at the flip of switch.

Down in the green walled basement, Alan let us into a lab with a giant cylinder. It was basically a fridge for a telescope. He mentioned how sometimes photographs of dark places can incur incidental white specks. These artifacts can be avoided if the recording device is sufficiently cooled. There are several concrete columns under the basement that were built so that vibrations in the ground due to footsteps and so on would not interfere with the instruments.

Other practical concerns include an overhead ceiling doorin the basement that opens up to let large items get dropped down. Water, gas and air pipes come into labs from the hallways instead of the walls, allowing labs to expand easily by knocking down the empty walls. A fire wall also comes down, blocking the airy main atrium from the flames to suffocate fire. A magnetic door pops out of the wall to complete the fire wall, allowing people from the basement to escape.

Up in the office spaces and classrooms, we are led into a hallway with slanted walls and a window on each end.These are what Thom Mayne calls “stitches”: they connect what’s on one side of building to the other. In this hallway, I can see the main campus across the street, and also the soccer field on the other side. The sense of community and collaboration was further accentuated with details in the stairwell. In my experience, stairwells are closed off from the rest of the building, but in Cahill, one can see and hear others on all floors of the building through the open grating.