New Kohn Hall Proves Whole Can Be More Than Sum Of Old and New Parts

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Santa Barbara, Calif.--For 10 years the key landmark for arrivals at the principal entrance to the ocean-side campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) has been the flat-topped, orange tower of Kohn Hall, home of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP), celebrating its 25-year existence under the aegis of the National Science Foundation (NSF) with an international conference on "The Future of Physics," from Oct. 7 to 9.  A decade after the opening of Kohn Hall (named for KITP founding director and winner of a 1998 Nobel Prize, Walter Kohn), an addition is being dedicated at the outset of the conference at 10:00 a.m. Oct. 7.

Michael Graves, internationally known for the startling eclecticism of his postmodernist design, is the architect for both the original and the new structures.  The result--more than the sum of old plus new parts—is a wholly integrated and transformed structure superbly designed to enhance the doing of theoretical physics.

First and foremost, Kohn Hall, both inside and out, with its predominant shades of muted orange from peach tones to copper, is beautiful.  The structure is both sited and designed to direct inhabitants’ points of view to take advantage of the stunning vistas from the location on a bluff overlooking the blue Pacific.

What does beauty have to do with physics?  Over and over again, the beauty of a given theory has been an indication of its accurate representation of deep reality.  But less fanciful a reason for the beauty of this structure is its purpose in attracting physicists worldwide to leave their home institutions for weeks and months to participate in KITP programs, which address the questions that define the leading edge of scientific research.

That purpose of creating a home away from home to stimulate collaborative scientific exploration accounts for the residential scale of the two-story KITP structure.  Clean but intimate architectural shaping of space--complemented by a surround of soft orange pigments and light maple wood--creates a warm, inviting environment that simultaneously relaxes and alerts the visitor’s mind.

What distinguishes the design process is the clever collaboration of Michael Graves & Associates and physicists, especially KITP director David Gross and permanent member Lars Bildsten, as well as KITP manager Deborah Storm.  In other words, the professionals who have worked and organized programming in the original structure were able to bring their experiences to bear on the design of the new one.

The whole point of this users facility for physicists is to promote interaction among ideas, which is the hallmark of 21st century science.  No longer the province of the lone genius such as Galileo or Newton or Einstein, theoretical physics now depends for advancements on the cross-fertilization of minds, and the new Kohn Hall has been designed to accomplish that purpose in three principal ways:

  • the liberal addition of interaction spaces in conjunction with that principal tool of theoretical physicists—the blackboard;
  • altered circulation routes, which encourage the meeting and convergence of scientists at the interaction sites;
  • conversion of a facility initially conceived in terms of a banker’s nine-to-five work-day to one that accommodates the more erratic schedule of the scientific researcher freed from the routine duties of his or her home institution who may want to work anytime in the 24-hour day, seven days a week.

The footprint of the original two-story structure resembles a squat capital "E," with the top and bottom horizontal lines representing corridors with offices on both sides and the vertical a thicker block which houses the two-story auditorium at one end and the tower at the other.

In place of the middle bar of the "E" was a three-sided courtyard.  Three double doors provided entry to the courtyard from nine to five Monday through Friday.  Because those doors enabled access from the exterior, they had to be locked at other times.  So a physicist working at, say, 6:00 p.m. had to leave via the principal entrance and walk halfway round the building to sit in the courtyard after hours.  Most afternoons, sunlight baking the courtyard made it an inhospitable space for either collaborative conversation or the lone thinker.

The two-story addition closes off the courtyard to exterior access, thereby adding to Kohn Hall the signature element of its Mediterranean (as adapted to Southern California) architectural style—the enclosed court.  Steel beams with orange stucco bases, that match in material and color the building’s façade, support a multi-sectional awning, electronically operated to close selected panels to screen users from direct sunlight, while leaving other sections open to maintain a sense of airy, outdoors environment.

The courtyard’s terracotta concrete floor does not extend all the way to the top and bottom bars of the old "E."  Plants will grow in those spaces.  Trellises to train trumpet vines line the walls.  And the thick mullions sectioning the windows have been removed from the three old double-door accesses to the courtyard—making the former inside commons room, where afternoon coffee and tea are served, lighter and brighter.

Across the new enclosed courtyard and accessible by double doors is another signature element of the new Kohn Hall—a one-story auditorium shaped like the semicircle of a Greek amphitheatre.  The curved side closes the courtyard.  On four large panels of that convex side of the courtyard are four large blackboards made of the only material for such purpose that can resist the weathering of the outdoor environment—Vermont slate.  Next to those real slate blackboards are niches for chalk and erasers.  The idea, of course, is that the physicists can continue to work via their preferred medium—the blackboard—in the courtyard screened from the sun.

The auditorium is designed for broadcast quality recording.  KITP director Gross instituted the practice of recording scientific presentations for web-cast to physicists throughout the world, thereby making the KITP a users facility not only for physicists in attendance at the programs, conferences, and workshops, but also for those located anywhere in the world with web access.  (The website averages 75,000 hits a day.)

The old Kohn Hall was designed and built before the advent of the Internet, so that video and audio recording of presentations in the old auditorium is cumbersome.  The new auditorium has been designed for the task.  Fifteen microphones in the low ceiling enable the recording of every question as well as the speaker’s response.  Provisions have been made for video equipment to capture not only the speaker, but also the audience.  The full dynamics of intellectual interaction can now be transmitted to physicists worldwide.

Accordingly, the auditorium is much wider than long with three rows of fixed seats in a semicircle facing a wide expanse of blackboard.  Everybody can see everybody, and physicists seated in the front row can dash to the blackboard to illustrate or work out their points.  Three separate, motorized drop-down screens enable projection of visual presentations whether view-graphs or PowerPoint or Keynote.  The screens deploy in such a way that the blackboards can be available for either further elaboration by the speaker or rejoinder by audience members.  And the lighting adjusts to screen or blackboard without somebody having to jump up and down to manipulate light switches.  A corridor flanks the perimeter of the semicircle so that latecomers can find seats without disrupting the presentation.

With all this utility the most striking feature of the auditorium is its beauty, created by the deft use of shades of orange in conjunction with two non-utilitarian architectural elements—four decorative columns and a ceiling of stepped semicircular soffits that mirror the pattern of the tiered seats.  On the second floor above the auditorium is a large semicircular room for graduate students.  It overlooks the courtyard.  Across the hall is a bank of offices.  Next to the graduate student space is a shower room—suggested by many a visitor who bikes in from his or her temporary abode in the vicinity of the campus.

To recur to the "E" footprint, the part of the new addition with the auditorium is positioned to close the "E," but the rest extends out towards the ocean beyond the top horizontal of the "E," not in the straight line of an arrow but the curving shape of a bow.  That outward extension towards the ocean is at less than a 90-degree angle from the old structure.  Bildsten, an astrophysicist with a keen interest in architecture, describes the elements that enable that bowing as "knuckles."

In the first "knuckle" near the auditorium is located the new principal entrance to the KITP with a receptionist area and a nearby mailroom where parcels arriving by vehicle can readily by deposited.  Between the curvilinear knuckles is a lovely divided maple staircase located at the principal intersection of the newly conceived building.  Hallways used to end in grey metal fire doors.  Now, the hallway forming the top of the "E" has the old tower with its first floor Founder’s Room and second floor two-story library at one end and the divided stairway with its centered French window at the other, and the corridor between runs through a series of rectilinearly shaped spaces.

That area of divided stairs is the principal interaction space of the building.  The mailroom is there.  The pantry with visitors’ coffee cups is there.  Blackboards line the walls.  A large plasma screen will be installed.  Niches are provided for artwork.  The space has been placed and designed to facilitate and to stimulate interaction.

As Bildsten describes the problem, offices tend to be shared by visiting physicists.  So someone dropping by to talk to one of the office’s inhabitants disturbs the concentration of the other.  Collaborators need therefore to leave the office to talk, and they have to have somewhere to go where their conversation won’t bother office inhabitants; hence the liberal use of spaces for interaction, both inside and out, in the newly conceived KITP.

In addition to the old commons room, there is now the courtyard and the large entryway buffered from the new office wings by the knuckles containing non-office facilities.  An office mid-way down the corridor of the old wing (topping the "E") has been turned into an entrance to a lawn with a meandering path connecting outside the old and new wings.  Another interaction space is being created in that entryway.

The path leads to a distinctive, charming architectural feature of the new building—a Venetian staircase—reminiscent of the walkway bridges arcing over canals in Venice.  Compliance with building code necessitated a second-floor exit from the projecting wing, so Bildsten suggested the use of a Venetian staircase.  The staircase parallels the outside exterior wall, thereby enabling a balcony above and a first-floor exit in a large semicircular–shaped expanse of glass below.

In order to keep the new wing that extends out towards the ocean from obstructing the ocean views of offices in the original building, offices are placed only off one side of the wing that extends towards the ocean.  That wing ends in the most distinctive feature of the new structure, the hexagonal tower, which forms a visually distinct counterpart to the original iconic KITP round tower.

"It took some time," said Bildsten, "for us here at the KITP to come to grips with the design concept for that hexagonal tower.  It is all Michael Graves, and it is inspired."

The director’s office is located in the first floor of the tower.  The second floor affords an extraordinary interactive space.  Four walls have large round windows 6.5 feet in diameter.  One wall contains the ever-prevalent blackboard, and the other wall the entryway.  Above jets a smaller lantern-like hexagonal structure painted blue in contrast to the orange hues that prevail throughout the building.  In each of the six sides is a slim clerestory window providing, in effect, indirect lighting for this exceptional space.

Director Gross (the first incumbent of the Frederick W. Gluck Chair in Theoretical Physics at UCSB) said that he told architect Graves that he wanted the top tower to be completely glass-encircled to afford the greatest possible view such that the out-looker would feel that he were outside.  Graves told Gross that if he wanted to feel that he was outside, he should go outside.  Buildings should frame the views, Graves told Gross.  "I can see now that Michael was right," said Gross.  "Now it’s like looking out portholes at the sea—each view framed differently."

Bildsten recommends looking at the hexagonal tower from the outside at night.  He describes the sight as "magical.  That’s when its resemblance to a lighthouse becomes most evident," he said.

Surveying the new structure, UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang said, "The KITP is internationally renowned and enviously emulated in so many countries as a place where the world’s top scientists gather and where great science happens.  This signature piece of expanded architecture—the new Kohn Hall designed by Michael Graves--beautifully complements the science and the people there.  We are enormously grateful to Fred Kavli, whose gift made the project possible, and to Professor Gross, whose vision and energy made this building a reality."

The original KITP comprised 16,296 assignable square footage (ASF), of which 1,850 ASF have been renovated in conjunction with construction of the addition.  The new structure adds 4,889 ASF, including 17 new office spaces.

[Note:  Photographs with credit to Peter Malinowski are available now here