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The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery is a game-changing new facility on the UW campus, opening on Dec. 2. The 300,000-square-foot building, located at 330 N. Orchard St., houses both the public Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and the private Morgridge Institute for Research, which will work together on biomedical research.
The building features a Mesozoic garden, which makes it feel like a scene from Jurassic Park.
That's fitting, because the fluid design of this ambitious building links visitors to the past - to thousands of years of scientific discovery - even as it transports them into the future. And thanks to the design team of Philadelphia-based Ballinger and Milwaukee-based Uihlein-Wilson Architects, that future looks as bright as a delicately hued nebula.
That sense of the ages is nowhere more evident than in the grand rotunda at the heart of the building on the ground floor. Standing in the center, a visitor feels at the center of the universe.
This masterful space has retractable walls that allow it to be used publicly or privately. With natural light pouring in from an abundance of windows, I can't help but think of Rome's Pantheon - a delightful echo of the past that trades stone for wood and a flat ceiling for an oculus.
One of the building's most beautiful touches lies underfoot in the rotunda, where the builders, J.H. Findorff & Son Inc. and Mortenson Construction, hand-laid wood floors in a style called Penrose tiling, based on a nonrepeating pattern discovered by eminent British mathematical physicist Roger Penrose.
In the rotunda and throughout, the architects have avoided being either too safe or too predictable, and they have succeeded in being contemporary without being cold. That's in contrast to so many large-scale public projects. The result is a rare architectural creature: a building whose design inspires even as it attends equally well to more prosaic human needs, like feeding the stomach. It includes a Town Center, open to the community, that features three food venues.
The architects and the two institutes deserve credit for a vision of this scale and ambition. The result is world-class architecture, a first-class scientific research facility and an exemplary community center.
Like nature itself, the building is constantly changing. There are flexible-use walls and a folding wall of windows that allows a restaurant to open to the outdoors. The natural light shifts with the time of day.
Meeting rooms feel private but never remote. A TelePresence system designed by Cisco lets scientists and entrepreneurs connect with colleagues around the globe. Embedded Teaching Labs offer hands-on learning opportunities. Strikingly, there are no defined hallways. They are replaced by organic shapes, like curves, spirals and other flowing spaces.
How different will it be for scientists to do research at the Institutes for Discovery, rather than in typical campus laboratories? The cutting-edge labs (there are four floors of lab space, three above ground and one below) could as easily grace the cover of Architectural Digest as the cover of the Journal of Biochemistry. You might even go so far as to call these labs, ahem, sexy.
One intriguing research space is the Living Environments Lab, where scientists will conduct research on home health-care devices for people with special needs, an important area of research given the aging population. The lab has some fancy tools in its research arsenal: the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) and a special research chamber with adjustable environmental controls.
CAVE uses images projected onto its walls, floor and ceiling to create virtual environments - say, a kitchen, bathroom or living room - that are used to simulate a variety of home health-care situations. The research chamber can create different environments by adjusting factors such as vibration, light, heat and humidity, and can be made to resemble an office, store, bedroom or other type of work or living space.
With these tools, researchers plan to observe people using hands-on medical devices such as a blood glucose monitor, a sensor that tracks breathing rates and a system that warns asthma sufferers that pollen levels are dangerously high. Researchers hope this kind of virtual-environment testing will help streamline delivery of new home health-care devices to consumers.
Like a powerful magnet, the labs are sure to draw other scientists from around campus, and indeed from around the world, to collaborate, commiserate and, yes, even to chow down together. In fact, eating together turns out to be fertile ground for the exchange of ideas among scientific colleagues. A team of planners looked at best practices around the country and found that encouraging scientists to eat together was one of them. That's why the new facility incorporates a cafe, a dairy bar serving Babcock ice cream and a restaurant.
Visitors to the Institutes for Discovery experience the sense of scientific discovery firsthand. They can explore the Fibonacci sequence using artist Kevin Dobbe's five interactive installations, which respond to movements to create sounds and colors. (In the Fibonacci sequence, each number is the sum of the last two numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21....) By moving across specially designated footstones, visitors can play the sound sculpture like a musical instrument. This is good science, but it's also just plain fun.
Even something as mundane as sipping a cup of coffee becomes a vehicle for scientific exploration. In the Institutes' Aldo Leopold Center, there is a display in the cafe where visitors can compare their observations of the natural world with those of environmentalist Leopold on any given day. They can track the building's use of energy and water using interactive displays. Or they can stroll to the microscopy niche to explore high- and low-resolution microscopes and 3-D printing. It's almost impossible to leave the Institutes for Discovery without having learned something new.
John Wiley, interim director of the public Institute, predicts that in 10 years, University of Wisconsin alumni will refer to the Institutes for Discovery the way that they now refer to the Rathskeller and the Memorial Union Terrace - as campus icons. Whatever the future holds for the Institutes, it's safe to assume that, thanks to this striking design, the intersection of science and community in Madison is about to boldly go where it has never gone before.
See for yourself
The Wisconsin Institutes opens Dec. 2, and nine days of festivities follow. Here are some highlights.
Thursday, Dec. 2, 1 pm
Science editor-in-chief Bruce Alperts speaks, along with Gov. Jim Doyle, UW Chancellor Biddy Martin and other VIPs. There are self-guided tours and other activities till 4 pm.
Blueprint for Discovery
Friday, Dec. 3, 5:30 pm
Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, building project manager George Austin and others discuss the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery facility.
UW-Madison's Wonders of Physics Show
Saturday, Dec. 4, 10 am & 2 pm
Spotlight on Discovery
Monday, Dec. 6, 5 pm
Institutes directors Sangtae Kim and John Wiley speak.
The Eureka! Conversation
Tuesday, Dec. 7, 5 pm
Wisconsin Public Radio's Steve Paulson moderates a talk with Institutes scientific directors John Denu and Patricia Brennan and others.
Spotlight on Education at the Institutes
Wednesday, Dec. 8, 5 pm
Panel discussion with state schools superintendent Tony Evers and other education experts, moderated by WISC-TV's Neil Heinen.
Laboratory of Art's Knowledge
Thursday, Dec. 9, 6 pm
Artist Suzanne Anker, of New York's School of Visual Arts, lectures.
Aldo at the Institutes
Friday, Dec. 10, 5 pm
Program about pioneering environmentalist Aldo Leopold.
Science Is Fun Extravaganza with Dr. Bassam Shakhashiri
Saturday, Dec. 11, 10 am-5 pm