June 8th, 2012
Last week I was lucky enough to get a tour of the award-winning Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. The brainchild of RIM founder Mike Lazaridis, the Institute, as the website declares, “is a basic research centre dedicated to exploring the world around us at its most fundamental level.’ It doesn’t get any more basic than that. A hub for theoretical physicists from around the world, the Institute is home to approximately 100 scientists and welcomes hundreds as visitors each year.
Now, how could an Institute dedicated to basic research at such abstract levels be an interesting place for a tour? The photograph above can’t really tell you exactly how, but it does hint at the splendour of the building and the inspiration it generates for the geniuses who traverse its spaces.
Notice the central open space, de rigueur these days for well-conceived architectural sites. Human beings who occupy such sites crave natural light, open space in which to breathe, and the opportunity for perspective. Notice the walls of tempered glass that both afford a measure of privacy and transmit and reflect light. Notice the colourful leather furniture, the potted ferns, the natural wood flooring. Notice the graceful curves of the staircases that hug the shell of the atrium. Everything about the institute has been created and realized in the service of human interaction, contemplation and conversation. And what you don’t see are the walls and walls of art—at every turn there are gorgeous paintings or mixed media compositions to stimulate the brain. I could have easily taken home any one of these.
The architects of gothic cathedrals well understood that it’s best to worship the divine in an environment that encourages soaring thought, surrounded by pleasing textures and enveloped in natural light—places of and for awe. Even today, centuries later, the most non-believing cynic is humbled upon entering, say, the lofty expanse of a Chartres, a Notre Dame de Paris, or a Reims Cathedral. You don’t have to believe in the Almighty to get what the effect of such architectural grandeur is on the human spirit.
Well, the Perimeter Institute is a 21st century vernacular cathedral devoted to the worship of the mind. I felt the same effect as I have experienced at any of the churches mentioned above, and in many more that have endured in the UK and Europe. The design has a higher power in mind, to be sure, but it caters to the sensual and intellectual well-being of the human subject. You can’t help but feel smart in such a space! In the first place, you know you are surrounded by brainiacs whose DNA you are inhaling just by walking around their turf. But you are also almost instantly put into a contemplative frame of mind through the sheer splendid force of the built environment.
The inner spaces are specifically designed to encourage a healthy research culture. The tour guide, the smooth operating communications director of the plant, advised that he would at times be keeping silent as we walked by any of the a designated “scientific interaction areas” where “spontaneous, multidisciplinary research” would be underway. Indeed, walking by the first of these I noticed what looked like a staged scene, except it wasn’t: a young man with impossibly long dreadlocks, scribbling some mathematical equations on a large blackboard. Staring in apparent wonder at the board’s hieroglyphs were two peers, male and female, seated on one of those colourful leather sofas, cupping coffee cups, warming themselves by the glow of a fireplace. I saw one or two variations of these tableaux throughout the tour, places where graduate students seem to congregate naturally. Dress code: decidedly Mark Zuckerberg. You want to be comfortable when you are trying to solve the mysteries of the universe.
Fireplaces in a place of learning? You bet. The tour guide told me that the entire building was conceived with the input of many researchers and scientists. They had uniformly insisted on natural light, fresh air, and, as already noted above, a few wood-burning fireplaces. Brilliant! Can you image our universities with fireplaces at regular intervals? Impossible, sad to say. Surely the Risk Management crowd would prohibit any such comfort on the grounds that they might offer just too much heat.
Now, just when you thought the building couldn’t get any better, the tour guide led me to the 205-seat Mike Lazaridis Theatre of Ideas. In that acoustically perfect space the Institute hosts a variety of scientific lectures, many for the general public, extending the brilliance of the inner workings of the structure to the world beyond. These are ancillary activities made possible through paid ticketing, private donors, and sponsorships. An enviable Event Horizons cultural program attracts some of the world’s most talented artists and performers directly into the theatre to share their ideas and experience. And so one week you could find Yo Yo Ma talking about the creative process, Bach, the cello, his own experience as a creative genius; another week you could engage with Laurie Anderson or the Kronos Quartet. Man, it really couldn’t get more Utopian. Perimeter and its partners had the right idea about mixing science and art, innovation and creativity. The institute is a living monument to the power of intellectual and creative exchange and it underscores why it is so important to invest in spaces that nurture such possibilities. Every time we cut architectural corners we diminish the potential for such possibility.
Even theoretic physicists have to eat. The Black Hole Bistro boasts some of the finest lunchtime fare at reasonable prices I have ever been lucky enough to devour: the finest, freshest produce, the healthiest, tastiest of Asian influences, the most tantalizing offerings. I was in gourmet heaven, really, and after a couple of hours of gawking at the wonders of the Institute I had earned my fresh seafood and quinoa salad.
Ah, if only our own postsecondary intuitions could take inspiration from such an example –from food to wall space to light and air. We are so hopelessly medieval—in the bad sense of the term—in our thinking about places of learning, and have such a long way to go. It takes ingenuity to make a building sing, of course, but most of our Canadian universities can’t even hum the right tune.
Next time you’re in Waterloo, check out the Perimeter Institute. It will blow your mind, which is, of course exactly what the Institute is dedicated to doing.