Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics / Morphosis Architects

Architecture: Morphosis Architects
Location: Pasadena, California,
Project Manager: Kim Groves
Job Captain: Salvador Hidalgo
Project Architect: David Rindlaub
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
Constructed Area: 9,290 sqm
Project Year: 2009
Texts: Morphosis
Photographs: Michael Powers

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

Architect’s Statement

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.

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.

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.

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.

Cite: "Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics / Morphosis Architects" 25 May 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 Nov 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=22887>
  • http://www.talkitect.com Lucas Gray

    There are some fascinating spaces in some of those images, but aren’t buildings like this getting to the point of being complex for the sake of being complex?

  • http://www.ft3arc.com Fino

    clearly a Morphosis project, but the most complex one I have seen from them. Hm….watch your back Libeskind.

    that is all.

  • Szymon

    The interiors look interesting. It’s hard to rate the exterior because of lack of photos showing the whole buidling but, from all I see on these 4 pics it looks a little bit too complicated to me.

  • Opium

    boring as always…bussiness as usual

  • Bo Lucky

    Simple function wraped in a nonsense form designed for… the form. Why? Because we can?

  • biboarchitect

    I love morphosis, although i have some comments on the building … the text is very romantic…” A vertical volume pierces the building, tilting its lens to admit light from the skies. The result is an occupiable telescope…” .. no doubts the staircase is a piece of art, but I’d rather use this tilting lens to add some light to the deep plan.. all the spaces in the middle lack to natural light… i think he gave his attention to the staircase and forgot about the main function

  • JuanLuisBurke

    Can’t we just bury deconstructivism and get on with our lives?

  • kingmu

    I’m completely floored by the quality of the interior detail. How did they get ANYONE to adhere to such detail? I’m duly impressed.

  • CMO ARCH

    I am also shocked that anyone would pay this much money for a stairwell! That detail doesn’t follow anywhere else in the building, just in that one stairwell.

  • Terry Glenn Phipps

    Fittingly this egofice has been erected ostensibly in the name of astronomy, but conspicuously in time to coincide with the drywall apocalypse predicted by the Mayan and Hopi astronomical calendars for December 21, 2012.

    According to end prophecy Michael Rotondi and Thom Mayne will be obliged to get real jobs working under Eric Owen Moss who is destined to become general manager and spiritual leader of a Popeye’s Fried Chicken franchise located in a ziggurat shaped strip mall just outside of Laughlin Nevada. The Fantastically Overinflated God who reins over the devolution of the Santa Monica people will laugh from his Temple of the Unnecessarily Distorted and Leaky Roof while ordering extra biscuits via telefax.

    When that glorious world gets built and the new age begins, architecture such as this shall cleave from the Earth’s bosom and fall to the depths of the Pacific into the watery oblivion from whence it came to haunt the innocent scientists of sleepy Pasadena.

    So shall it be, all hail the Jaguar god.

    Terry Glenn Phipps

  • kc

    it could have been something more intriguing..this project is not..you see one picture and you get the idea, as opposed being completely renewed by a place which is dedicated to the unknown..

  • NMiller

    Having visited the project, I can safely say that it is a fantastic building. Conceptually very clear… even the more normative parts have subtle details that relate to the main staircase and the exterior facade.

    Also, having had the chance to talk with a couple of the occupants, the consensus seems to be that everyone is happy with the facility.

    Well done!

  • Comitant

    If any building is a dormant Decepticon™, this would be it.

  • Jeffry

    Mr. Mayne has disappointed me. An office with such a self-proclaimed interest in meaning should not be tripped up by this obvious play on ‘concept equals realization’. It should be obvious to any that sad is the effort placed on artificially sculpting paths of light in order to signify the study being undertaken in the monotonous cubicle rooms as opposed to thinking for a moment about the nature of those rooms. This is a typical three step student project. 1st step-Brilliant Idea. 2nd step-HOLY CRAP, I have to design a building with toilets. 3rd step-oh yeah I had a good idea… now where can I insert it? How ’bout the staircase….

    The facade is a nice color though.

  • shady sides

    “neo decon”

  • DM_A

    I think the interiors are completely out of control. Not the main shape, but the details. There are sooo many things happening at the same time in each corner that I just can’t assume that everything’s controlled by the architect. It’s like a “let’s see what happens if we add this here…and there…ok, I need a handrail here…that’s it.”
    Anyway, I’d like to visit it to explore it by myself.

  • Tuf-Pak

    Them’s some aaaaaaangry stairs. Huh.

  • http://www.tommymanuel.net tommy

    This is one of those architectural realizations that both offers a lot, yet holds back a great deal. The astronomical concept, while nothing new (think Stonehenge, the pyramids, etc.), seems constrained to the fascade and central stair, and although this may be considered a shortcoming by some, one has to bear in mind the economics and efficiency any architecture must confront. Comments which imply that architects do this or that simply for attention or for the sake of ___ suggests more of a societal neurosis than ego-tripping by architects. There’s a great deal of sincerity with any architect who approaches a project they design, regardless of scope, style, or context. To imply otherwise further alienates the profession from the world we design for.

    I’m sure Mayne had many reasons, some esoterically elaborate and others simply banal, for the decisions made in the building’s design and construction. We shouldn’t forget that even the likes of Morphosis must make compromises in pursuing the collective vision of a project. Are they all presented here? No. Are they all apparent to those who use the building daily? Again, no. They don’t have to be. How unbelievably boring and dismal it would be to have everything explained. The greatness in this kind of work is its support of mysteries through the bits of information we do receive. As Andrew MacNair said to me, “it’s a damn miracle anything gets built, but build it dammit”

    Sometimes the architecture isn’t the building itself but rather some aspect of the building.

  • Travis

    Basically all of the “architecture” went into the stair and the facade—look at those office/rooms and the clear schism between the stair and the office “block”…
    bulllllshiiiiitt!

  • Jeffry

    tommy, you have seriously depressed me. the only reason we have to deal with “economics and efficiency” is because we do. enjoy that.

  • http://www.tommymanuel.net tommy

    Thanks for that laugh, Jeffry. It would be nice to think that we could ignore it, and I guess forums like this do give us all a chance to say, “hey, but shouldn’t it be more like…” Cheers!

  • Scott

    I’ve been in the University of Cincinnati’s athletics complex designed by morphosis and this reminds me a lot of it. The UC building is remarkable and this building might be as well, unfortunately the photos don’t tell the story if it is.

  • weil

    This building with this facade does not reflect or its not sincere to the elements of construnction and disposiotion of space. MATERIALITY would Frampotn say.

  • DARSF

    Awesome forms. Morphosis are masters. Opium above said:” boring as always.” What the fuck is not boring?

  • Terry Glenn Phipps

    One of the things that I have learned about abstraction is that it is nearly-always literal. It is rare to meet an artist who cannot (when willing) explain exactly what they have created and why. Very often, the abstraction itself is only a thin scrim intended to protect an emotional landscape that has potent energy at its heart. This mechanism for directly connecting with an emotive state without being overly explicit, works reliably well and protects both the artist and the viewer.

    However, sincerity of purpose, quality of abstraction, and the compromises necessary within the creative process to realize a work, don’t necessarily result in a cohesive and worthwhile project. Neither does missionary zeal in pursuing an aim negate the ego motive that may be the sum call to action or only a fractional part thereof. It is possible to be sincere, talented, emotive, and outrageously pretentious all at the same time.

    Doubtless Morphosis have their reasons for wanting this building to look as it does, doubtless they faced compromises in a budgetary process within a University context, and doubtless the result satisfies them. I would posit, though, that these are simply not the criteria for objective criticism.

    Put another way, judged by the criteria that have been laid out here, a credible argument could be made for saying, by way of example, that Edward D. Wood Jr. was a comparable filmaker to Stanley Kubrick – after all they both approached their work with comprehensive understanding of their aims, absolute passion, and each followed the creative process through its compromises to a result that was visible on the screen. This game can be carried to truly ludicrous extremes by comparing Abraham Lincoln and Idi Amin – why not.

    As a work of architecture this building strikes me as staggeringly pretentious and unnecessary. For example, the staircase, however elliptical its intent, is an extravaganza of dry wall geometry pointing to what? My take away from looking at it is that it is pointing to itself and screaming look at me. If we are meant to take Morphosis seriously as architects then it is legitimate to ask why such a staircase exists? What is its purpose? What is it meant to inspire?

    Perhaps the comparison isn’t apt, but looking at this staircase brings to mind the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim and the grand stair of the Garnier Opera. In both cases the transit between spaces is treated as both a liminal and elevating experience. No one would argue that Wright or Garnier were anything other than egotists of the Howard Roark magnitude, but the work stood up. You cannot look at either gesture and say, hmm that is just pretention for the sake of doing something -different-.

    It is perfectly legitimate to differentiate between the visual poetry of Mark Rothko and the visual pollution of Banksy. Both artists charge their expression with everything they can bring to bear upon their subject, but they are not equivalent. Neither -must- we celebrate one artist at the expense of the other; they are both arguably relevant. However, we can -choose- to appreciate one at the expense of the other. There is absolutely no reason for me not to think that Rothko is a more inspiring, or even better artist than Banksy (and that is precisely what I think).

    When I look at a project like the Cahill Center I sometimes ask myself what would someone like Francois de Menil do with the same brief. My guess is that the result would have been, well, spatial – a meaningful pictorial and plastic depiction of inner, outer, otherness, inclusion, and most of all thoughtfulness. The pursuit of spatialism and proportion in architecture, in art, in film, and in all gestural media is a truly noble pursuit. Proportion allows us to differentiate between this and that expression and gauge its appropriateness to the subject at hand.

    Where proportion is most relevant is in action. If we are defined by what we do, and we are, then the pursuit of proportion in action, in gesture, is the singular definition of character and soul. The soul of the building, too, is defined by its character and gesture, consequences of the actions of the architect who built it (within a framework of compromises).

    No, I don’t think it is up to anyone to judge the soul of another. However, it is up to each of us to choose those souls with whom we wish to fraternize and travel through space.

    By those criteria this is a building that doesn’t inspire me to look at the stars. When I look up I see the celestial horizon (or far beyond if I am one of the students and scientists who walk through this building). Walking through that staircase all I can imagine are Earthbound limitations.

    Terry Glenn Phipps

  • Lana

    interesting facade, seems a little fragmented though, the interior, pushes and pulls you all at the same time, there is just so much going on, it is too complex, and my eye is just trying to understand…
    I like the play of light in the interior, but maybe it should have been more controlled or clearer, i see a direction of elements protruding out of the walls, extending, but i cannot see a strong relation between these elements..

  • biinbiin

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  • http://MB4co.com Ramin Ahmadi

    Hello