Enlightening the Earth

By Rand Richards Cooper ’80


No single view of the new science center
will disclose its whole shape.

video Take a 3D virtual tour of the planned Science Center, view more images and see construction updates on the Science Center project pages.

It’s coming.

It will house five academic departments, dozens of labs and classrooms and offices, and a soaring, sunlit atrium destined to be one of the college’s prime gathering spaces. Its four terraced levels—220,000 square feet of glass, steel and concrete, inscribed deep into the hillside—will re-envision Amherst’s built environment.

It is the new science center. And it will look like nothing Amherst has ever seen before.

Last fall the college announced the new building—at $200 million, the most expensive capital undertaking in its history. Scheduled to open in 2017, just east and north of the current site of Merrill Science Center, the building will serve as a new hub for the campus and represent what President Biddy Martin calls “a visionary testament to the power and importance of science education and research in a liberal arts college setting.”

Amherst’s need for an upgraded facility has been apparent for some time. Opened in 1968, Merrill has struggled in recent years to keep pace with changes in science research and education, its outdated and overtaxed systems propped up by costly summer interventions. The building was not configured to allow for the kind of interdisciplinary work that science increasingly requires. And it is a voracious energy hog, accounting for almost a third of the college’s entire energy consumption.

Initial discussions considered the possibility of refurbishing Merrill. But it became clear that such an effort would be too costly and interruptive, and eventually the Board of Trustees voted to replace the building and start from scratch. To select a design team, the trustees undertook a far-ranging search with input from faculty, students and administrators, as well as from several alumni architects. The search was unusually ambitious. “The idea was to break out of the mold,” says geology professor and Associate Dean of the Faculty Jack Cheney, who was deeply involved in the process from start to finish. From five finalists, the board selected Behnisch Architekten, a German-based firm considered a leader in sustainable design. With encouragement from the college, Behnisch partnered with Payette Associates, the Boston-based company that designed the Beneski Earth Sciences Building; Payette will take the lead on the new science center’s interior facilities.

“This was an adventurous choice,” says Blair Kamin ’79, Pulitzer-Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. “The college decided to go outside the box.” In Behnisch it landed a firm with a record of international prizes and a reputation for buildings of startling ingenuity and beauty. The company’s lead partner, Stefan Behnisch, impressed from the start. “First, he had significant experience doing science,” says writer and editor Cullen Murphy ’74, who chairs the board’s Buildings and Grounds Committee. “It was also clear that he knew how to listen, and listen carefully. He was not going to be one of those architects who treat the client as an unfortunate necessity.”

The science center will house all the labs, equipment and teaching spaces necessary to the astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics and psychology departments, as well as the neuroscience and biochemistry-biophysics programs. Having state-of-the-art equipment is important for Amherst. “If you don’t have the facility for first-rate research and teaching, you can’t attract the best faculty,” President Martin says. “This building will let us do that.” Prospective students look closely at the sciences when they consider where to apply and matriculate, and Dean of Admission Tom Parker considers the new building “the single most important decision the college has made to keep its admissions strong.”

But more than the facilities, what has people talking is the science center’s novel—and intensely contemporary—design. The plan envisions a building whose “organic geometry,” nestled into the hillside, slyly camouflages the building’s size, as only one level—the top floor—will be visible to those approaching from the main part of campus. Four terraced stories will present extensive horizontal glass facades to the south and east; “green” roofs will combine with hillside groves in a matrix of lawn, ground cover and trees. Inside, a circular central atrium, drenched in natural light and set with interior gardens, will rise to a roof whose asymmetrical ventilator stack resembles a modernist cathedral spire.

Amherst has hired celebrated architects before, from McKim, Mead & White (who designed Fayerweather) to Edward Larrabee Barnes (Seeley Mudd). But those architects stayed within the confines of a recognizable New England college tradition—an idiom defined largely by brick and mortar deployed in regular geometries. “Even the music building, which broke from Amherst’s traditions with its glass and open faces, still reads as a brick building,” notes Kamin. “This one doesn’t. It’s a big departure.”

Such boldness could pose a problem for Amherst. “Buildings that are too provocative could interrupt the experience of the campus,” says architect Bruce Becker ’80, president of Becker + Becker and a former master planner for the college. “New buildings at Amherst have always been restrained. A building could be virtuosic and yet make no sense with the campus.” Becker believes that the Behnisch design avoids this trap. “Behnisch Architekten is a firm that doesn’t design just to make a name for itself, but to solve problems,” he says.

The problem at Amherst was how to build a very large building without dominating everything else. The solution lay in recognizing how the campus functions. Compared with other college campuses, which are often chopped up into a hodgepodge of small spaces, Amherst’s lines are clean and simple. Part of that simplicity is the prominence of sky and horizon; an open relation to the horizon, rather than a cloistered intimacy, is the essential experience of the campus. Consider the importance of Memorial Hill, which is not only a gathering place but a place of identity for the college—the site that returning alumni ritually visit in order to refresh their sense of what it means to be at Amherst.

“This building,” says architecture critic Blair Kamin ’79, “will shake things up big time.”

The view from Memorial Hill performs two seemingly opposite functions: It gives Amherst pride of place but also keeps it in its place, in perspective. Landscape not merely as beauty, but as meaning. In this respect, Behnisch’s design defers to the deep character of the campus. “This campus is beautiful and tranquil,” says Martin, “and the building has the ability both to amplify this tranquility and be continuous with it.”

Yet the tools the new science center deploys to do this—grass roofs, hillside terraces, wavy facade lines and an extraordinary amount of glass—are a radical departure for Amherst, bringing a touch of Hundertwasser or Gaudi to its Euclidean classicism. “This building will shake things up big time,” says Kamin. “It’s a big roll of the dice for Amherst.”

To learn more about who the trustees had chosen to roll those dice, I spent a morning at Behnisch Architekten in downtown Boston. The office occupies the second floor of a 19th-century warehouse on Kingston Street, a high-ceilinged room whose white walls are hung with photos of Behnisch buildings, every one of them visually arresting in the extreme—like the “Haus im Haus” in Hamburg, a steel and glass cube that hovers within the neoclassical hall of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, or the spa at Bad Aibling, near Munich, whose domed cabinets suggest a series of moons.

Across the room, a dozen architects, all seemingly in their 20s, worked quietly at design tables. Behnisch was dressed casually, in old jeans and a sweater. At 55, he has the weathered good looks of the British actor Tom Wilkinson and speaks deliberately but with a lurking, droll irony. When I mentioned that an architect friend of mine had called the design for the science center “the most Wrightian building” he’d seen in years, Behnisch chuckled.

“Really?” He turned to his partner, Matt Noblett, who runs the Boston office and shares oversight of the Amherst project. “Did we pull a Frankie?”

“Well, I think our Wrightian tastes tend more to Bruce Goff than pure Wright,” Noblett said, referring to the modernist architect known for flamboyant eclecticism.

“Yes,” said Behnisch, laughing. “More the wacky stuff.”

Educational architecture is in the firm’s DNA. Its founder, Behnisch’s late father Günter, was a noted architect—he did the stadium for the ill-fated 1972 Munich Olympic Games—who started out building high schools in postwar Germany. More recently the firm has designed a major biochemistry research facility at the University of Toronto and a law library for the University of Baltimore. But the Amherst science center is its big North American project at the moment. A large table in the middle of the room held a scale model of the Amherst campus with the new building included—a massive, amorphous arrangement of lobes overspreading the southeast corner of the campus like some giant mollusk.

It looks colossal, I said to Behnisch.

“Yes,” he said, “but remember: No one will have this view, unless they are in a hot-air balloon. The building as you experience it at ground level will be altogether different.”

Over coffee, Behnisch and Noblett described the evolution of the new center’s design. Early ideas included a complex of buildings divided among different departments. But briefing sessions at Amherst emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation, and gradually a more daring concept took shape: a single structure, in some modified form of a ball or ring.

A consensus emerged that the new center should be generally welcoming—a place, Noblett recalled one trustee remarking, that people who aren’t “science jocks” would nevertheless visit. And that it should do justice to Amherst’s natural surroundings. Behnisch had perceived that landscape is a main element in the character of Amherst College. The heart of the campus is a ventilated quad, open at the diagonals. But Merrill blocked one diagonal path, fortress-style, with a looming wall of brick. Why not create a building, Behnisch wondered, that would do the opposite? Instead of having it sit on top of the hill, why not sink it down in, make it part of the landscape—a building not on the hill, but of it?

“This is a unique building for us,” Behnisch told me. “We haven’t done one quite like it before.”

I asked him, How does an architect dream up an innovative design? Does he wake at 2 a.m. with an inspiration? He laughed. “No! The genius who sits up and scribbles on a napkin—that’s a novel, that’s The Fountainhead. In reality there is no ‘Aha!’ moment.” He gestured across the room toward his team of young associates. “Our process is collaborative. Neither Matt nor I hands a sketch down the assembly line. We’ll say, ‘OK guys, let’s look at this campus. What possible sites do we have?’”

He rehearsed how he and Noblett led the discussion on the Amherst project, pointing out the pros and cons of various locations, the relation of any building to existing elements, to the view. “We discuss parameters. And then, in groups of two or three, they start working. When they come up with something, we discuss it—this is not right, that’s too big, and so on. At some point someone says, You know, a box doesn’t work for that, so why don’t we do a spiral of some kind? And that’s the first step to a solution. Then we say, the building should have a familiar scale—so if it’s too big, let’s do a building that you never perceive in its whole size from any angle.”

Thus, through a Socratic process resembling a college seminar, the team arrived at what Behnisch calls a “heuristic moment,” and the principle that no single view of the building should disclose the whole shape of the building. This crucial rule may account for why people grope for a term to describe the new science center’s shape—a flywheel, a hub, a spaceship, the petals of a flower or, as Behnisch himself called it, struggling momentarily with English, “this Kleeblatt. You know, on St. Patrick’s Day. A cloverleaf.”

The rule sets yet another contrast with most of Amherst’s buildings and their straightforward shapes—“you-get-what-you-see buildings,” in Behnisch’s not-unadmiring phrase. The science center, I suggested, will be a much more elusive, even mysterious structure than Amherst is used to.

“That’s true,” he mused. “It is a building to be discovered—to be discovered over time, yes.”

The atrium is conceived in an if-you-build-it-they-will-come kind of way.

And it will be discovered by many. Aside from its teaching and research functions, the new center is expressly conceived to exert a gravitational pull on students, in an if-you-build-it-they-will-come kind of way. Already some Amherst students—perhaps responding to a virtual tour on the college website that depicts couples happily strolling and friends drinking coffee in the sunlit atrium—are jocularly calling it “the mall.” President Martin had chuckled when I told her that. “Of course, this is first and foremost a science building,” she said. “But we really do want it to be a gathering space—a hub that can attract people from across the campus and the community.”

To that end, the Behnisch team has outfitted the center for varied public uses. A big library. Informal work areas. Kitchenettes and a café. An event area in the atrium. “We need to be sensitive to the needs of researchers and teachers for certain working conditions,” Noblett said. “But within those constraints we want to optimize the building for social purposes. There aren’t many places on campus for people to meet in small groups to work and hang out, especially after hours. This building is going to do a lot of that.”

What it will also do a lot of is save energy—using only one third of what Merrill used. “The building will be a model of energy conservation,” says Professor Cheney. Behnisch and Noblett ran down the list of energy-saving features: LED lighting; hydronic heating and cooling systems; stormwater gardens to collect rainwater for filtration and reuse; complex transfer technologies to minimize the costs of moving air; a low-velocity exhaust stack that will allow the atrium to be ventilated naturally; an exposed concrete slab to moderate temperature swings in the lab areas; radiant ceiling heating and cooling. In every project, Behnisch said, his company tries to get its client the biggest bang for the buck in terms of sustainability. “And not only as a purely quantitative aspect, but as a qualitative one—you know, the living, working quality of the building.”

Take daylight, for example. Behnisch is avid about what he calls “daylight enhancement.” The science center will optimize natural daylight through reflection and redirection. I asked about the prominent role of glass in many of his buildings. Was there a message in that—transparency as a metaphor, as in the gargantuan glass dome atop Norman Foster’s celebrated renovation of the German Reichstag? Behnisch brushed off the idea. He considered that a “naïve” aspect of Foster’s design, he said.

“Glass for us has a lot more to do with its technical performance,” said Noblett. “Especially the daylighting of spaces.”

In material terms, the science center will be minimal, Behnisch said. “Concrete, wood, steel. And the green, and the landscape. End of story.” He spoke with quiet zeal, as if to emphasize the meaning of green buildings and the elemental nature of what he was trying to bring to Amherst. “The point of glass is having no physical barrier between the outside and the inside.” He smiled. “Every office will have its own garden.”

The lower floors are integrated with the landscape.

To help me visualize what his boss was talking about, Noblett took me across the river to Cambridge and the Genzyme Center, a 350,000-square-foot office building that was Behnisch Architekten’s first big North American project. From the street the structure looks innocuous, another dark-glass obelisk in Biotechland. Then you walk in.

Cheney had called Genzyme “jaw-dropping,” and he was right. Its heart is a 12-story, floor-to-ceiling atrium. Looking up, one sees floating steel staircases, green hanging gardens, and intimate balcony nooks where a table and chairs perch. From ground level a mammoth oak, steel and concrete staircase rises to an elevated lobby, turning the lower area into an enclosed streetscape, complete with walkways, sculpture, storefronts and an infinite-edge watercourse.

“This building was important for Stefan,” Noblett said. “It helped define a new approach to human-friendly design for him.”

Genzyme is lighter inside than the day outside, and Noblett detailed the crafty technologies that make this possible. Motorized heliostats—moving mirrors, set atop the glass roof—pull sun down into the building. Computer-controlled chromed blinds open and close. Dangling chandeliers of translucent tiles both intensify and distribute natural daylight—and look lovely, like twinkling necklaces.

An admiring architect I’d spoken with had called Behnisch “almost fetishistic about atriums.” Noblett did not demur. “There’s a challenge to an atrium,” he said. “It can’t be dead space. You’re introducing something from the outside to the inside, while making a space that people can inhabit. If it’s done right it allows people to interact in less structured ways. And it becomes a place for respite.”

This was certainly not dead space. Quite the opposite, it was alive with light and color and people; an active, bright, livable place. It evoked, in fact, something of those idealized renderings on the Amherst website, people walking, working, enjoying their lives in a gorgeous surrounding full of greenery and light.

So this was what it meant to be human-friendly: a place that triggers in you a powerful urge to stay there. I recalled being a physics student at Amherst in the 1970s, and how strangely oppressive the big foyer of Merrill was. Cavernous, dark and dungeon-like, it was a place you never lingered in, but hurried through. Standing amid the sparkling attractiveness of Genzyme, I had a sense of what the new Amherst building will be like. This is going to be huge, I thought. People are going to love it.

There is a lot to love on college campuses these days. Anyone who graduated from a college like Amherst before, say, 1980 will recall a distinctly Spartan aspect to daily life. But for three decades now, colleges have increasingly lured applicants with amenities: sprawling fitness centers, lavish dorms and dining facilities. And glamorous architecture. “Colleges today compete through the construction of attention-getting, iconic buildings,” Blair Kamin notes. “This building will inevitably engage that competition.” But Behnisch’s building, Kamin insists, is not motivated by a desire to preen. “This isn’t an arbitrary, attention-getting shape. There has been a great attempt to make it a practical, working building. The building says that the sciences matter, and that we take them seriously.”

Designed to showcase teaching, the new science center will itself be a teaching building. “The green features of this building derive from the desire to be environmentally responsible, and they also very much inform how it looks,” Kamin continues. “The students who walk through this building are future leaders, and for them the building will be a teaching tool. They will look back and say, ‘This building didn’t just preach—it practiced.’”

The north entrance disguises the center’s mass.

Architecture, the eminent architectural historian Vincent Scully once remarked, opens up a continuing dialogue between generations, creating an environment across time. A liberal arts college does much the same. As Amherst approaches its 2021 bicentennial, a tour of its campus reveals the immanence of time. Consider how many buildings perform functions other than their original ones. Converse Library, Fayerweather Sciences, Barrett Gymnasium, Octagon Observatory: these and other anachronistic names reflect the rich interplay of continuity and change that is Amherst.

The new science center promises to do likewise. Stefan Behnisch says he can easily imagine it being used for something else 50 years from now. Who knows, after all, what the sciences of the future will be like? “The goal is an adaptable building,” he says. “The more optimized a building is for one purpose, the less flexible it becomes for any other purpose.” Adaptability, flexibility: though liberal arts colleges are unknown in Germany, Behnisch has created a design that could well be a metaphor for liberal arts education itself, which aims to prepare students for purposes and challenges beyond what any of us can imagine at the moment.

Meanwhile, the structure that will break ground in June 2013 is already making an inviting demand on the imagination. What you’re imagining most excitedly depends on who you are. A new laser lab. An office with a garden. A drastically reduced energy bill. A glass-cased, iconic building, embedded in the hillside, that glows like a lantern in the night, giving new meaning to the college’s motto, Terras Irradient.

Or, if you’re Professor Jack Cheney, a certain collegial anticipation—and appreciation—of science envy. “I’m looking forward,” he confesses, “to seeing other scientists come here, look around, and say, ‘Now this is the way it’s supposed to be done.’”

Rand Richards Cooper, a fiction writer, essayist and critic, is a frequent contributor to Amherst magazine.

Drawings from Behnisch Architekten