The Astrophysicist and the Poet

Poetry • Astrophysics • Architecture

This is a project from grad school. The thrust of it was to design a campus building for two diverse departments using a process based design approach. To initialize the thought process I conducted a series of interviews with faculty members from both the astrophysics and poetry departments. Much of the discourse centered on the similarity between the studies of each discipline. Both fields require the student to investigate and interpret infinitely vast sets of data, using incredibly small components. The Astrophysicist studies the nature of galaxies and the universe by observing the smallest particles of matter and energy. The poet stabs at the breath of human experience with brief strings of words and partial sentences. Each proclaimed the relevance of scale to their work. A small truth measured at the atomic level can lead to fundamental shifts in our understanding of the universe. Similarly in poetry, the smallest form, if ringing true, can enlighten readers of vastly disparate dispositions and cultures to commons truths inherent in the human condition. This observation is true of architecture as well. The treatment and intensity of the smallest component should be sympathetic to the largest gesture, emerging from the same system.

The other similarity, which the astrophysicist proffered, was the role of intuition and creativity, suggesting that many of the greatest discoveries in the field of astrophysics, were at the moment of inception, pure intuition, a leap of faith followed by exhaustive research to either prove it false or true. Intuition, he mused, comes from the same place as poetry, and as such is not heard, touched, or seen in a way that scientists are comfortable with. It is allusive, a part of the process of discovery that can be inspired through study,  but never forced or controlled.


The program for this project has two main goals. The first is to provide a permanent residency for two university programs whose current facilities have become unmanageable. The second goal is to provide temporary workspace for multi-disciplinary, intercollegiate collaborations.

1. The permanent residencies are for an astrophysics library and research lab for work on electron m i c r o -scopes, and for a poetry library and lecture hall for the English Department. Both of these departments are currently located in the densest, most high traffic part of campus. The English department is located in the core of a building designed in the mid-eighties, offering little or no natural light. They often host poets and novelists who read in a cramped and dark lecture hall. They also have no dedicated poetry library.

The Astrophysics lab is located close to a main campus road, which greatly affects the calibration of sensitive equipment they use for their research. The other main problem with the current location is the amount of light which the surrounding environment releases into the night sky.

2. The second part of the program provides flexible workspace for departments to work on joint venture projects. Often times such collaborations have to occur mainly through cross campus e-mails as space is limited in each individual department. The space provided by Co-Lab is retained through an application process, and used on a semester basis. The program also includes a gallery for displaying joint venture projects to a public forum, and several large conference rooms for campus gatherings and lectures.

This casting is a campus light-level study, researched through an inspection of university infrastructure maps and crossed referenced by riding a bicycle around campus at night with a light level meter. The low areas of relief signify intense light levels; the high areas are those which introduce little light into the night sky. The astrophysics department houses several large telescopes, both for their own use and to host star gazing nights for the community. Their current location has inhibited the success of this mission due to light pollution.

This study aims to identify potential site locations based on light levels. After completing the initial study, a campus overlay was added as a way to measure the association between light levels and density and to track potential areas for growth in an effort to anticipate where further light pollution is bound to occur. From this study a site was chosen on the south edge of a wetland sitting in the middle of campus. The area connects to the main campus through roads used by the department of agriculture. The area of density to the southeast of the site refers to a group of low-lying greenhouses which emit no light into the night sky.

The Library

The critical programmatic requirements for the astrophysics department and the English department are the electron telescope research lab and the poetry library. The library serves both poetry and astrophysics, providing a common space for students and faculty of each discipline to commingle in their academic pursuits. Each receives a shelf as the library shoots in a single trajectory across the swamp on a string of pylons. As the section reveals, the library itself exists in a state of constant assembling. The pylons extend farther than the stacks of the current library, anticipating an expansion of knowledge, conjecture, and understanding, measured in distance, research, and creation. Additions to the library will continue along the established course towards the center of the wetland area. Above the library is a promenade which extends out from the third story of the co-lab complex. By day this may be used as a platform to view indigenous birds and wildlife. By night, however, this promenade will host the star gazing nights, the telescopes of the astrophysics department lined along the edge of the rail.

The Astrophysics Lab

On the opposite side of the building, the electron microscope research center is embedded in a subterranean lab. Their current location on the fifth floor of a research building limits the equipment they can use or design by the size of the service elevator. They also must contend with movement on the fifth floor as the building responds to high winds, often playing havoc with their sensitive equipment. The subterranean lab is set off the back of the complex and is covered partially by its own roof. This would contain sliding panels opening to the night sky for intermediate equipment calibration. The lab is also connected to a long service ramp which could be used to move heavy and large equipment in and out for more extensive testing.




view of library from marsh

view of library of the marsh

Bridge to Auditorium


Interior of Library


Interior Atrium