Crit: Cahill Center for Astronomy

Crit: Cahill Center for Astronomy

The building is clad in tilted, sliced, and angled cement-board panels.
Photographs by Roland Halbe

Morphosis’ newly opened Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Caltech in Pasadena is among the firm’s more subdued works. Low-slung and clad in Swiss Pearl cement-board panels the color of aged terra cotta, the three-story building lies along California Boulevard like a chunk of displaced red-rock sandstone. Although the facade is cracked and tilted, its small scale, combined with the soft, warm color, lends the science facility a sense of repose—an attitude not usually associated with the brazen architect Thom Mayne. The building looks restrained, but not too much, as if it had recently suffered damage in an earthquake. Anyone driving along the boulevard looking for the Caltech Seismological Laboratory can be forgiven for thinking he’s arrived at the world-famous earthquake lab—which is actually next door in a rather plain and decidedly un-seismological Spanish colonial revival.

The confusion is cued by the features that make the Cahill building unique. On the exterior, vertical planes not only list to either side of 90 degrees, but also appear to have shifted horizontally relative to one another, much the way two pieces of the Earth’s crust slip along a fault. Dark, deep, diagonal voids, left without the cement-board cladding, emphasize these thrusting plates.

Inside, the $50 million, 100,000-square-foot center contains classrooms, offices, underground labs, a public auditorium, and a library. The initial focus is a dramatic, white, central staircase that is supposed to be about astronomy. The stair is what you notice first upon entering the lobby, and it’s all about light—the key component to understanding the cosmos. The firm developed a circulation shaft made up of walls that look like shards of light refracted through the lens of a telescope. These fractured walls cascade and collide, come to a knife’s edge, or seem to extend to infinity. Windows allow sunlight to fall on the walls, casting long, flat beams and truncated wide ones, as well as trapezoids of shadow, depending on which piece of wall the light hits. At the pinnacle of the stairs is an oculus, an undisguised reference to the telescope and to the human desire to ponder the heavens. Meanwhile, stair treads alternate between concrete and steel mesh, between solid and void, impenetrable and clear, meant to suggest the dance of scientific exploration.

Deep, diagonal voids (top) emphasize the thrusting plates. the central stair (above) transports, and disorients, visitors.

On the upper two floors, the hallways jog and bump, never following a straight line along the 350-foot length of the building. Mayne has said he wanted to “attack the institutional nature of an entity. The wiggle (in the corridors) is more relaxed, more like a medieval city, like Sienna.” The idea, really a commonplace, makes offices less isolating by making the hallways more collegial. The firm has placed large windows with window seats at the ends of four hallways that bisect the floors. Mayne has dubbed these physical breaks “stitches.” The windows frame views of the campus and the soaring San Gabriel Mountains to the north and the flats of San Marino to the south. These are pleasant, quasi-public spaces in which you can imagine overhearing chit-chat on the imponderable essense of, say, dark matter.

Throughout the project, Morphosis has transferred the tilts and slants of the exterior to the interior, producing a strange, dizzying effect. East-facing walls slant east, west-facing walls slant west. The hallway walls tilt in one direction from the floor up and another from the ceiling down—creating a modified chevron, or boomerang-shaped space. Those corridors are also painted in powdery hues (one floor sports an aqueous blue reminiscent of Neil Denari’s palette). Of course, there is nothing new about sloped walls, just as there is no surprise that such walls can throw the human body off-kilter.

It is unclear if Mayne wants these walls to actually put the body off-balance or if he sees them strictly as metaphors for the dynamic, unsettling forces at work in the universe. Unfortunately, the metaphor, intended or not, has become reality, and the question is whether the congenial window-seat hang-outs will provide a sufficient antidote to the vertiginous walls that line every hallway, conference room, office, and grad student’s cell.

At bottom, Mayne is an architect who isn’t especially comfortable using form to induce feeling. When he delivers a sensation, he does so with a body-blow—such as the doom you feel as a lonely pedestrian, passing beneath the overhanging weight of the Caltrans building in downtown Los Angeles. More often his work is about conveying a visual punch. His buildings are generally experienced as an in-your-face wallop, and less as a subtle accumulation of critical moments or passages more felt than seen.

The new Caltech building is agreeably lively as a surface and as a volume that looks as if it is falling to pieces. The central staircase speaks eloquently to the search for knowledge buried in the mysteries of deep space and time. Yet the building lacks Mayne’s characteristic bravura, his willingness to take a great leap, however messy the result. The building looks like a repetition of so many other Morphosis projects, only scaled down and scaled back. Several decades ago, the intellectual historian Thomas Kuhn wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that science, like evolution and history, grows by leaps and bounds, rather than in a steady, linear fashion. Mayne knows this to be true about architecture.