Life After the Collider

Life After the Collider

Kate Joyce

Upon accepting the commission to design a new office building at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, architect Carol Ross Barney found herself at the crossroads of art and science, this time set curiously in the prairielands of rural Illinois.

Located 35 miles west of Chicago in Batavia, Fermilab houses what was once the largest particle accelerator in the world. It is defined by what Barney called “a strong artistic and architecture bent,” which is seen in the unique buildings and somewhat notional sculptures that dot Fermi’s 6,800-acre campus. “That was the environment that we had to fit into,” said Barney.

Built “to attract private industry and researchers through state of the art offices, technical, education, and research capabilities,” Fermi’s Office and Technical Education Building, designed by Ross Barney Architects and completed earlier this year, conveys a sense of entrepreneurial fluidity. Billed as an incubator for startups that would interact and do business with Fermi through the lab’s Illinois Accelerator Research Center, the building’s office area is a canvas for a revolving cast of tenants, with demountable partitions and a raised floor design allowing for seamless turnover.


The 47,000-square-foot OTE Building, developed through a joint venture between the state of Illinois and the U.S. Department of Energy, is set in the figurative shadow of the lab’s administrative hall, a 16-story concrete high rise designed by Robert Wilson, the lab’s original director. Wilson, who led the lab from 1967 to 1978, is said to have cast the structure in the image of France’s Cathedral of Saint Peter of Beauvais. “He was a physicist, but he thought he was an architect,” said Barney, “or maybe he was an architect by aspiration.”


Wilson’s crowning achievement, the 4.26-mile long Tevatron particle accelerator ring, was decommissioned in 2011, conceding future experimentation to the superior Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. In its wake, Fermi has set out to repurpose itself as a touch-point for future investments in the field of particle physics.

Barney, whose lab portfolio includes the Swenson Civil Engineering Building at the University of Minnesota in Duluth, said that her team had initially intended to steer the building in the direction of Wilson’s hall, but eventually co-opted the color palette and form of the abutting Collider Detection Facility—an orange, boxy structure that serves as the entrance to the accelerator.

From overhead, the office building resembles an offset compass point detached from its spindle inside of the accelerator ring—a “sexy white shape,” as Barney described it. The building’s vegetated roof offers a panoramic view of the now-inactive collider ring, as well as an occasional glimpse of the herd of buffalo that roam the property, another memento of Wilson’s lasting gift.