Cahill Center for Astrophysics | Morphosis

• May 13, 2009

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Los Angeles practice architect Morphosis (led by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne) has designed the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology, located in Pasadena, California. The Cahill Center conceptually acts as an astronomical instrument, pierced by a vertical volume, tilted its lense to maximize the penetration of natural daylight from the sky. The new Cahill Center boasts 100,000 square feet of offices, laboratories, auditorium and common areas. It’s scale, orientation, horizontal massing, and facade facing have created both visual and physical connection between north and south campuses.

The building is the result of a series of forces that collide to produce unique spaces of discovery. Force lines track the movement of form and light through the building’s faceted façade, the central vertical volume, and the stitches. As one moves through the space, formal fragments coalesce to reconstruct the interactions among light, architectural elements, and bodies as physical traces of the institution’s new ideas.


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+ Architect’s statement below provided by architect, Morphosis

Since the construction of the Palomar Observatory in 1948, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has continuously pioneered new ways of observing and explaining the heavens. Caltech scientists and engineers have deployed ever-changing telescopes on satellites, rockets, and balloons, and with these have made fundamental discoveries leading to new theoretical models. Paramount discoveries that have come out of Caltech include the cosmological nature of distant quasars, gamma-ray bursts, and brown dwarfs. In 2007 alone, Caltech astronomers found the largest object orbiting the sun since the discovery of Pluto in 1930, as well as the most distant galaxy in the universe. Yet, over the decades, the various specialists dispersed across the Caltech campus. The Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics brings together a dozen different groups with vastly different cultures, focuses, and scopes into a single structure designed to facilitate collaboration and spontaneous discourse.

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In the tradition of ancient and modern architectural observatories found around the world, the building itself conceptually acts as an astronomical instrument. A vertical volume pierces the building, tilting its lens to admit light from the skies. The result is an occupiable telescope, a public stair space that links earth and sky even as it strives to link person to person.

Located on Caltech’s South Campus directly across California Boulevard from the Institution’s historic North Campus core, the Cahill Center physically and symbolically connects the two campuses. The new building’s scale, orientation, horizontal massing, and material language connect with the original complex of Spanish and Mediterranean buildings across California Boulevard (a significant part of the campus’s historic core as envisioned by Bertram Goodhue’s 1917 master plan). On the south side of the building, the athletic fields appear to extend all the way to the building’s edge. A grove of newly planted sycamore trees, part of the overall landscape strategy, create a natural but permeable boundary. The new building extends a primary north-south axis across California Boulevard, stitching the two campuses together. A series of north-south interior corridors—literally, “stitches”—reinforce this connection and serve to orient circulation. Floor to ceiling glazing terminates the stitches: the southern façade’s glazing overlooks Caltech’s large, open athletic fields, while the northern façade’s glazing offers views back to the historic core and to the San Gabriel Mountain Range beyond.

All of the building’s laboratories, each configured to accommodate a specific area of research or activity, are located on the basement level of the building. By setting the building back on the site and by carefully sculpting the landscape around the building, the laboratories are granted as much access to natural light as is possible and practical, minimizing the basement feel and strengthening visual connection and accessibility to the ground level and to the campus.

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Section courtesy Morphosis

The ground level of the building features a series of public spaces. The entry lobby (which includes the building’s central vertical circulation volume), the 148-seat Hameetman auditorium, and a library maximize the building’s use as a social and gathering space. The floor to ceiling all glass east wall of the auditorium affords views out to campus an in to the building, further promoting connectivity between the north and south campus. The library, located adjacent to the auditorium at the southeast corner of the building, opens out onto a semi-private deck that overlooks the athletic fields. Shaded by the sycamore grove, a deciduous tree, the deck provides an outdoor gathering space that is pleasant to use throughout the year.

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Blow up Plan courtesy Morphosis

The building is the result of a series of forces that collide to produce unique spaces of discovery. Force lines track the movement of form and light through the building’s faceted façade, the central vertical volume, and the stitches. As one moves through the space, formal fragments coalesce to reconstruct the interactions among light, architectural elements, and bodies as physical traces of the institution’s new ideas.

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+ Caltech Press release

Caltech’s Newest Shining Star:
The Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics

PASADENA, Calif.–The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) scientists who study the outer reaches of space are about to get some space of their own with the official opening of the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The opening not only marks the beginning of a new era for Caltech astronomy, but is the Institute’s kick-off for the International Year of Astronomy, a global effort initiated by the International Astronomical Union and UNESCO to mark the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo Galilei. The aim of the year is to stimulate worldwide interest in astronomy and science.

The Cahill Center–located at 1216 California Boulevard–boasts 100,000 square feet of offices, laboratories, and common areas. Designed by the Los Angeles-based firm Morphosis (led by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne) and built by general contractor Hathaway Dinwiddie, the building is both highly functional and visually impressive.

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Everything about this building has that thought-through feel–from its address (1216, in angstroms, is the wavelength of ultraviolet light emitted by hydrogen atoms) to the view from the lobby up an ever-narrowing staircase to the skylight on the third floor (which mimics the experience of peering up through a telescope) to the cut-through hallways on each floor (which connect Caltech’s north and south campuses and serve to orient the building’s occupants).

But what is perhaps most important about the Cahill Center is that it will allow some 300 of Caltech’s top-ranked astronomy and astrophysics faculty and graduate students to work together in a building dedicated to their needs for the first time in more than 40 years, thanks to Charles H. Cahill, who provided the lead gift for the $50 million center. The building has been named for Cahill and his late wife, Anikó Dér Cahill.

As a civil engineer myself, I’m always excited to be part of the birth of a new building, especially one that has been needed and envisioned by our faculty and administrators for so long. If not for the extraordinary generosity of Charles Cahill and several other supporters, our faculty might still be waiting for this dream to become a reality.

says Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau.

Indeed, the Cahill Center was made possible not only by Cahill’s lead gift, but by generous support from a number of Institute friends, including the Sherman Fairchild Foundation, the Ahmanson Foundation, the Kenneth & Eileen Norris Foundation, Fred & Joyce Hameetman (whose gift will name the Hameetman Auditorium), and Michael Scott.

Taking a program like this to the next level is a team effort, and our donors have been a key part of this remarkable team.

says Chameau

For decades, our extraordinary astrophysics faculty have been scattered across campus, among several overcrowded buildings. The Cahill Center will bring together 26 astrophysics faculty and their groups into a single, remarkable space. Students and faculty alike will have a much richer experience. I can safely predict that new discoveries will be spawned in the coming year by conversations in hallways and interaction spaces that would not have otherwise taken place.

says Andrew Lange, chair of Caltech’s Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy and the Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Physics.

Some of the key features of the building include
• the 148-seat Hameetman auditorium and a library situated on the building’s first floor to maximize their use as social and gathering spaces;
• offices located on the building’s second and third floors and the western part of the first floor, amongst which are scattered conference rooms and interactive spaces designed specifically to promote impromptu discussions and informal group meetings;
• a single basement floor (with ample access to natural light) which houses all of the building’s laboratories;
• remote-observing rooms; and a building-wide wireless system.

The design for the Cahill Center draws on the institute’s desire to maximize interaction between the astronomy and astrophysics faculty and their research groups. Visual and vertical connections between the laboratory and office levels occur via the main stair, while interaction areas and open break rooms punctuate each floor, all providing opportunities for chance and planned discussions to occur between the researchers. Views out of the building look across the campus and up into the sky, providing select moments to celebrate the study of astronomy and astrophysics on the world-renowned Caltech campus.

explains Kim Groves, principal in charge for the Morphosis team.

The Cahill Center is noteworthy not only for its creative design concept and execution, but also because it will be the first Caltech building to be certified under the LEED Green Building Rating System. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, was created by the U.S. Green Building Council, a coalition of more than 7,500 organizations from all sectors of the construction industry. LEED certifications are meant to encourage “whole-building” sustainability by recognizing structures that meet the building council’s high standards.

Conventional buildings have significant impacts on the environment over their lifetimes, considering the resources used to construct and maintain them and the generation of the energy used to operate them. Constructing LEED-certified buildings, which represent the state of the art in resource and energy efficient design, is critical to improving Caltech’s environmental performance.

notes John Onderdonk, Caltech’s manager for sustainability programs.

The Cahill Center will be given its gold-level LEED distinction because of the many features that allow it to reduce negative environmental and health impacts. The building’s design provides for
• reducing water use by 30 percent;
• reducing energy use by 24.5 to 28 percent; and
• providing access to daylight to a minimum of 75 percent of its spaces.

Two of the most visible green features of the Cahill Center are the use of day lighting throughout the building–which reduces the need for electrical lighting–and the architectural paneling on the exterior, the paneling actually shades the building, thereby reducing heat gain and the need for interior air conditioning.

Onderdonk explains

This focus on keeping things green extended to the construction phase of the building as well. In building the Cahill Center, the architects and construction crews focused on using materials with recycled content, as well as local and regional materials; they also used low-emitting adhesives, sealants, paints, carpets, composite woods, and laminate adhesives. In addition, they diverted more than 90 percent of the construction waste from the landfills, which significantly reduced the building’s impact on the environment.

The opening of the Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics was followed on January 27 with a full-day symposium to celebrate Caltech astrophysics. The symposium, “The Future of Astrophysics,” is being held in the Hameetman Auditorium, with webcasts to the Cahill conference rooms. Speakers included
• Michael Turner, professor of physics, University of Chicago;
• Jason Glenn, associate professor of astrophysics, University of Colorado;
• Seth Shostak, senior astronomer, SETI Institute;
• Roger Blandford, professor of physics, Stanford University;
• Tim De Zeeuw, director general, European Southern Observatory;
• Robert Kirshner, professor of astronomy, Harvard University;
• Steven Beckwith, vice president for research and graduate education, University of California;
• Andrea Ghez, professor of physics and astronomy, University of California, Los Angeles;
• Peter Goldreich, professor in the School of Natural Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study; and
• Jerry Nelson, professor of astronomy, University of California, Santa Cruz.

+ Project Credits

Architect: Morphosis
Project: Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology
Location: Pasadena, California
Site area: 1.0 acres /0.4 hectares
Project Size: 100,010 gross square feet/9,290 gross square meters
Program: Laboratory and administrative academic building with auditorium and library
Photographer: Michael Powers

Project Manager: Kim Groves
Project Architect: David Rindlaub
Job Captain: Salvador Hidalgo
Project Designers: Martin Summers, Shanna Yates
Project Team: Irena Bedenikovic, Pavel Getov, Debbie Lin, Kristina Loock, David Rindlaub
Project Assistants: Patrick Dunn-Baker with Adam Bressler, Laura Foxman, Brock Hinze, Amy Kwok, Hugo Martinez, Mark McPhie, Barbra Moss, Greg Neudorf, Mike Patterson, Aleksander Tamm-Seitz , Rychiee Espinosa, Jennifer Kasick, Kyle Coburn, Christin To, Sunnie Lau
Structural Engineer: John A. Martin & Associates
Mechanical Electrical Plumbing Engineer: IBE Consulting Engineers
Civil Engineer: KPFF Consulting Engineers
Landscape Architect: Katherine Spitz Associates
Laboratory Consultant: Research Facilities Design
Architectural Lighting: Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design, Inc.
Signage and Graphics: Follis Design
Acoustical Engineer: Martin Newson & Associates, LLC
Audio Visual and Telecommunications: Vantage Technology Consulting Group
Vertical Transportation: Edgett Williams Consulting Group, Inc.
Curtain Wall Consultant: David Van Vokinburg
Code and Security Consultant: Schirmer Engineering Corporation
Specifications: Technical Resources Consultants, Inc.
Cost Estimator: Davis Langdon
General Contractor: Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction Company

+ About Caltech

Caltech is recognized for its highly select student body of 900 undergraduates and 1,200 graduate students, and for its outstanding faculty. Since 1923, Caltech faculty and alumni have garnered 32 Nobel Prizes and five Crafoord Prizes.

+ All images courtesy Morphosis + Michael Powers

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Category: Architecture, Education, Selected

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