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New Science Building Crosses Final Frontier
By C.M. Powell
(956) 381-2741
Posted: 09/21/1997
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The newest building on The University of Texas-Pan American skyline, the $26 million Science Building, combines similarities to the rest of the campus' architecture on three sides with startling differences inside its courtyard.

The most unique element of the building is the brightly colored model depicting the first five planets

of the solar system within the building's courtyard. The design of the three-dimensional map was prompted by the newly renovated Planetarium, which now represents Earth.

John Kell of Kell Muñoz Wigodsky, the San Antonio architectural firm that designed both the Science Building and the Engineering Building next door, said that the building’s use gave the designers more freedom to try something new.

"Science by its very nature...challenges the boundaries that are given to it," Kell said.

At 156,700 square feet, the new building, home to the Departments of Biology and Chemistry, is the largest structure on the UT Pan American campus — at least until the University Library is expanded with a new three-story addition next year.

The original plans included an understanding that the Planetarium would be removed from the building site.

"We discovered that the Planetarium was still in use for science students and young people interested in astronomy. We thought, ‘If we’re going to build a Science Building which has as its purpose to encourage science education in Valley students, then why would we take down something at the university that is in fact encouraging scientific thinking in young minds?’"

The designers decided the Planetarium should stay.

"We chose to wrap the Science Building around the Planetarium," Kell said. "It was so small compared to the building that it was almost like a piece of sculpture sitting in the courtyard.

"Once we had done that, the building design as it evolved seemed to suggest that the courtyard itself might be about our solar system, in a very abstract way. We had a need for a faculty and student lounge section of the building, which became the round element, which is now the ‘sun.’"

Fire stairs were needed on the ends of the building’s long north and south wings. The designers chose to make them exterior stairs because of the Valley’s climate.

"Once we had created this ratio of the sun to the earth, then one stair seemed to be about the right distance for Mars and the other about the right distance for Jupiter," Kell said.

He said that all of the "planets" in the courtyard’s "solar system" have practical uses. "Mercury," the stainless steel element closest to the "sun," is an information kiosk. "Venus," the next planet out, is an orange-gold cracked mosaic tile patio area. Even the moon — the only satellite in the model — is represented as a small round bench with a crescent moon design.

The sun, Earth, Mars and Jupiter are also covered with cracked mosaic tile — the sun in a deep red, Earth in a mixture of blue, green and white, Mars in shades of dark red with a corkscrew stripe of blue-grey across the windows to represent the Martian "canals," and Jupiter in greyish brown with bright red tiles around a circular window meant to represent Jupiter’s red spot.

The two-story-high entry corridor to the courtyard from the south is covered on both sides and on the "ceiling" with deep blue glazed brick.

"The blue glazed brick was intended, as you come from the Engineering Building or from the mall area, to suggest that something different was happening, that you were in fact entering space," Kell said. "We also used it on the south side of the courtyard, behind the earth, to set the tone."

The landscaping also follows the solar system pattern, with curved walkways around the "sun" representing the orbits of the planets.

"In the garden walks, we showed the way that the moon goes around the earth in a sort of looping pattern, and we indicated the arc of Earth and Venus around the sun," Kell said.

The attention to detail extended to the type of trees — crepe myrtles — planted in the "orbit" of Mars, the "red planet."

"As the bark falls off, the trunk is very reddish. That will become more and more evident over the years," he said. "This particular crepe myrtle, which is called a Natchez White, has an interesting characteristic in that it has small white flowers right up on top, and we thought that would be interesting since Mars has an ice cap.

"We were having fun with the courtyard," Kell admitted. "But then it began to have an interesting meaning for us. We thought if a student comes to the courtyard and he goes over to the information kiosk, which is supposed to be Mercury, he will probably forever remember that Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, and closer to the sun than the earth.

"We felt that, at least for the ones that we represented, students would see a visual relationship of the planets to each other that they probably wouldn’t get just from looking at a textbook. That might inspire their interest in science to some degree."

Although the inside of the building’s courtyard is a radical departure in many ways from the architecture of the rest of the university, the architects still wanted to use some of the design themes present throughout the campus.

In most cases, UT Pan American buildings follow the example set by Kenneth Bentsen, who designed the original campus buildings based on the architecture developed by Louis Kahn of Philadelphia. Kahn’s designs include the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

On the three sides of the new Science Building that face the campus — the outer walls on the north, west and south sides — the building follows the campus’ architectural style, Kell said.

The designers chose a very plain brick design for the south side of the building to avoid competing with the pedestrian mall that connects both Health and Physical Education buildings to the Engineering Building and the University Library further west.

On the west side of the building, the designers chose to use "a piece of architectural expression that would reflect back towards Kahn without being something that Kahn had ever done" — a series of brick arches along the top.

"The arched top to the building really came from a design that Kahn had originally proposed for a museum project in New Haven (at Yale), but had never really used. And so we were in effect using a form that he might have used if he had been around doing the Science Building at UT Pan American.

"That aspect to it, with other elements that we used, formed the basic mass of the building that faced the campus, so that from the campus, while being rather large scale and a little more plain compared to some of the other buildings, it is still within the vernacular of the Kahn Pan American campus brick architecture. That’s the basic building."

The architects also pulled Latin American elements into the building design in the brickwork and the cracked tile.

"Since we assumed that a lot of these students would be Hispanic, we wanted to give them pride in their heritage and an understanding that in their heritage from meso-America were great astronomers," he said.

"We tied the Kahn arched tops to the building to these pyramid patterns of the brick. We were trying to refer back to the pyramids of Central America.

"The cracked tile that we used is common in Mexico, but it really refers back to large cracked tile structures in Barcelona that were done in the early part of the century, which inspired a lot of the use of cracked tile in large-scale things all over Latin America," he said. "You don’t see it in northern European structures. It’s more of a Hispanic expression of the tile."

The building’s two main elements — the Kahn architectural style on the outside and the colorful model in the courtyard — combine in the designers’ ideas for the building, which is different from their concept for the Engineering Building.

"I see engineering as a very creative profession, and one that needs to see itself more creatively, but fundamentally, it has a tendency in our society to work within givens and to protect our world from what happens when you get outside of those boundaries," Kell said. "Science is different — it says, ‘What if I didn’t accept those boundaries?’

"We viewed the Science Building within the context of that philosophical difference between what the world is asking a scientist to do and what the world is asking an engineer to do. We wanted the architecture to say, in effect, ‘What if the university was willing to accept a step outside the rules that have always been here?’

"With the Engineering Building, we said, ‘Let’s do — within the rules that were set when we came here — a really strong building.’ With the Science Building, we are saying, ‘Without breaking all the rules, what if we took a step away from the rules?’ That’s really where the architecture comes from, fundamentally."

Finished by BFW Construction Co., Inc., of Temple, Texas, at the end of the summer, the new Science Building is divided into three sections: the south wing, which holds four large auditoriums and three smaller classrooms; the west section, which holds 16 biology teaching laboratories and seven chemistry teaching labs; and the north wing, home to research labs, research support facilities, and faculty and administrative offices, including the office of the dean of the College of Science and Engineering.

The building is also divided vertically — biology is on the first and second floors and chemistry is on the third floor.

In the round element — the "sun" — are a faculty lounge on the third floor, a student lounge on the first floor, and an open-air student lounge/balcony on the second floor.

The building’s teaching facilities are outstanding, according to Dr. Scott Gunn, an associate professor of biology who represented the faculty members of the biology and chemistry departments on the New Science Building Task Force.

"From the standpoint of teaching, this is a state-of-the-art facility. This is the best building that I know of right now," he said.

"The whole building is set up for communication through the local area network. Access to the World Wide Web is available in every room, especially in every teaching facility and research facility. It’s only when you go into the bathrooms or the closets that you can’t hook up to the ‘net."

The seven classrooms are equipped with projection televisions that can use video tape, laser disk and computer presentations and have motorized chalkboards, sound reinforcement and wireless microphones. Interactive television is scheduled to be connected in one classroom first, with the others coming on-line over time.

On the third floor of the classroom wing is a large shelled space available for future expansion.

In the north wing, there are 11 finished research laboratories, with room for 12 others that can be added later. There are also 21 research support areas — rooms dedicated to instrumentation and other facilities that will be needed by more than one faculty researcher or upper-division student doing research under the guidance of a faculty member. Research support areas include a tissue culture facility, a cold room, four environmental chambers, a global information system laboratory, gas chromatography, mass spectroscopy, electron microscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance and atomic absorption, among others.

The building is also designed for safety.

"There are a lot of safety features," Gunn said. "There is 100 percent outside air in the teaching and research labs. If someone releases something nasty, it will take it out of the building and not recirculate it. There is a transient waste facility to dispose of chemicals, and each lab has a purge button so you can change the air flow immediately."

The project architects extended the solar system premise to the interior of the building in the use of colors and materials.

"We wanted to experiment a little bit with people’s visual emotions inside of the building, to show that architecture can in an interesting way affect your emotions," Kell said. "We did that by the very simple device of the way we used color."

The "Sun Lobby," the area closest to the lounges in the sun part of the building, was planned as a high-traffic area.

"At the ‘Sun Lobby,’ we made everything yellow, assuming that people would find a space that was all yellow somewhat unfriendly and not the kind of space that they would want to sit down and watch TV in," he said.

"We made all the corridors that connect one spot to another a soft periwinkle blue, representing travel through space, so that when you were in these corridors you would get this serene but unreal feeling."

In the interior of the building nearest the Planetarium — "Earth" — are the "Earth Lobbies."

"We made the ‘Earth Lobbies’ out of very friendly materials — warm stone floors, a sort of golden wood on the walls, green acoustical absorption at the top of the walls, and a beautiful blue cloth ceiling, so that the whole lobby is very friendly, warm and hospitable like our Earth is."

In the interior, as with the courtyard, the design goes along with the designers’ premise for the building — as Kell puts it, "the philosophical desire to express the fact that science asks you to step slightly outside the bounds of your normal thinking and say,

‘What if....’"