Matthew Francis is a writer based in Cleveland. His work has appeared in Wired, Ars Technica, and Aeon.
The idiosyncratic design of a hub of Cold War physics research, the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in Illinois.
This essay is an excerpt from Midwest Architecture Journeys, edited by Zach Mortice, forthcoming October 15 from Belt Publishing.
I didn’t come to the prosaically named Silicon Detector building for its roof. I was there to look at some cutting-edge telescope technology, soon to be implemented at one of the world’s leading observatories. But here I was looking up at the interior of a funky squashed geodesic dome, constructed of triangles in muted reds, blues, and golds, like an electron micrograph of a virus built of stained glass by Buckminster Fuller.
The Silicon Detector (or SiDet) building itself is a squat concrete structure with sloping sides and a trapezoidal profile, a distinctly 1970s structure. The geometric dome originally was intended to be a patriotic red, white, and blue, but time has faded it into autumnal colors. The panels are made out of recycled beer and soda cans with their ends cut off, arranged between two sheets of colored plastic reinforced with glass. Light shines through the cans, but not so brightly as to create a glare.
The SiDet building is all the more striking for what and where it is: It’s a physics lab devoted to the fabrication of next-generation detectors for experiments and telescopes. More specifically, SiDet was originally part of a facility meant to study neutrinos: very fast-moving, low-mass particles that are notoriously hard to detect. Similarly, the facility itself is hidden from the general public’s view behind a security perimeter on the grounds of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, more commonly known as Fermilab.
Named for Enrico Fermi, the physicist who—among many other accomplishments—led the first successful nuclear chain reaction experiment, Fermilab was designed to be the United States’ flagship particle physics facility, created to probe the fundamental particles of nature and the forces that govern them.
Since I’m a science writer specializing in physics and astronomy, my interest in Fermilab science is self-explanatory. However, it was Fermilab’s architecture rather than its science that caught my eye on this visit: sparks of humanity among the faceless institutional cement cubes. Like the beer-can roof, these buildings are pleasing when their more fanciful elements work well, and frustrating to occupants when they don’t. The search for subatomic particles is far removed from daily experience, but here, it’s intimate and familiar, literally made from any household’s refuse. The flourishes like SiDet’s roof were relics of the era when particle physics was in full flower, pushing to discover new particles and test more exotic theories, and the architecture reflected that spirit.
Like the physics experiments they housed, some of the fancy buildings were wild successes, while others were interesting failures. Bravery isn’t universally successful in any venture—scientific or architectural—but buildings that survived to the modern era were remade to fix their flaws, like a repeated experiment that benefits from prior failures.
Fermilab, located in Batavia at the western outskirts of the Chicago megalopolis, is a 6,800-acre complex with dozens of buildings. Some of those, like a few barns, are relics of the days when Batavia was a rural community. Today, Chicago’s exurbs have grown to envelop the region.
If you aren’t one of the physicists who work at Fermilab, you need to have special permission to get past the security gate to see SiDet. Like a sensitive teenager’s artwork, painted only to be seen by perhaps one or two friends, the building is both flamboyant and secret.
Fermilab has a number of these semi-hidden architectural gems: spirals, scalloped roofs, and other geometrical features appear throughout the facility. Even the power lines running into the complex were designed to look like the Greek letter pi (π).
Mixed in with these architectural monuments to the heady heyday of 1970s particle physics are the hideous utilitarian sheds and trailers housing many of the research scientists, and the unimpressive boxy metal structures containing some of the major experiments. Portions of the extensive Fermilab grounds are as close to wilderness as you can achieve in suburbia. Though surrounded by all the trappings of modern urban sprawl, Fermilab is home to a small herd of bison, along with coyotes, herons, and other wildlife—a true nature preserve, worth visiting for that reason alone.
The lab’s many quirks reflect both its history and the vision of its first director, Robert R. Wilson (1914-2000), who led the lab from 1967 to 1978. Though he was a physicist with a remarkable scientific pedigree, Wilson also studied sculpture at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Italy. He was born in Wyoming in a town literally named Frontier, and kept up his Western affectations even as he moved from place to place. The herd of bison was his idea, and he was known for riding around Fermilab on horseback.
In keeping with his interest in art, Wilson either designed or directly influenced the architecture of many of Fermilab’s buildings, including SiDet. He particularly wanted the lab’s headquarters to be a significant and attractive structure. Architect Alan H. Rider worked for the architectural firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson and Mendenhall, which was part of the consortium of architects, contractors, and engineers that built most of Fermilab’s buildings. (Among his many projects, Rider also helped design the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery).
At 15 stories and 200 feet in height, Wilson Hall is by far the tallest structure around, and undoubtedly Fermilab’s most famous building. Its shape reportedly was inspired by the Gothic cathedral in Beauvais, France, though to someone of my generation, its sweeping curves create a profile strongly reminiscent of the Atari logo.
The building has an inner courtyard extending nearly the height of the building, with glass from base to ceiling on either end creating a space filled with light. Many offices look onto the atrium; none of the windowless and airless workspaces typical of academia. The courtyard level, which visitors enter via doors at the top of a broad set of stairs, contains a garden of ficus plants. Balconies overhung with ivy look over the open cafeteria space at the far end, which is a common gathering place in accordance with Wilson’s original vision. Overall, Wilson Hall’s atrium is one of the most attractive spaces in science, like a museum atrium dedicated to particle physics.
Not all of Wilson’s ideas were so successful or well-received by Fermilab staff. He was under a lot of pressure from the United States Atomic Energy Commission to finish a world-class national labora- tory in seven years, with a budget of $240 million. (That’s roughly $1.8 billion in 2018 dollars, which isn’t a lot of money for a construction project consisting of dozens of buildings.) For that reason, Wilson had his builders recycle as much material as they could, up to reusing whole farm buildings. He also took personal responsibility for which corners to cut, or more precisely: which floors to lay.
To be specific, Wilson reasoned that a lab didn’t truly require cement floors when the Illinois turf would do (and save money at the same time). As a result, this multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art physics laboratory originally had many buildings with dirt floors. The Meson Lab, one of the larger structures, had a roof made out of steel culvert plates that leaked onto the dirt floor in the rain. Fermilab physicists ended up battling water and mud in addition to the typical experimental snafus. As Wilson wrote years later with Fermilab historian Adrienne Kolb:
The building itself, originating from my fevered brain, was a triumph of architecture (well, in my opinion), but it was something of a catastrophe from a practical point of view. I am ashamed to report that the users therein regarded it more as an Inferno than the Paradise I hoped it to be.
“I still find it difficult to understand why those users all stopped speaking to me,” he joked, but his light tone masked a defensiveness: he thought he was doing the best he could under difficult financial circumstances. (It’s also easier to laugh about it when you’re not the one trying to protect delicate equipment during a Midwestern thunderstorm.)
The SiDet building was also originally floorless. “The geodesic roof of that metal structure leaked badly during rainstorms and the floors were dirt,” wrote Paul Halpern in his book Collider, “so team members often needed to wade through muddy puddles to get to their equipment.”
The Fermilab sheds, unofficially known as the “proton pits,” were even more notorious among scientists. These were simple metal huts without any toilets or other amenities. These were designed to be movable to various places along the kilometer-long tunnels along which the protons traveled, but in practice were inadequate shelter for the experiments they housed. Wilson noted that, despite those problems, physicists first detected a new fundamental particle in the proton pits: the bottom quark, also known as “beauty.” That “beauty” was discovered in a place of mud and mayhem is somehow apt.
By the time I visited Fermilab in 2012, the dirt-floored buildings were gone or modernized. For instance, the SiDet building bore no trace of its original dirt-floored state, and the funky geodesic roof was sealed so it no longer leaked. The original centerpiece of the building was a huge particle detector known as a bubble chamber. This was a huge metal construct designed to track particles produced from a source over a kilometer away. To save money, the builders reduced the size of the building, making it slightly too small for the bubble chamber. Wilson fixed the problem by designing a cutout in one wall, with an odd-shaped structure to accommodate the detector’s dimensions. Physicists using the building called it “Wilson’s nose.” (Unfortunately, the “nose” is gone and as far as I can tell, no pictures of it are online.)
Fermilab held a drive to collect enough cans to make the roof, and even constructed a special machine to cut the tops and bottoms off the cans. Though the drink-can roof was partly a cost-saving measure, Wilson took ecology and recycling seriously, and was willing to spend money on it. He kept much of the grounds open as a nature preserve, recycled materials wherever he could as a deliberate reduction of waste, and turned scrap into art. The “Broken Symmetry” sculpture standing at the gates was made of the leftover material from a surplus battleship used to build a particle detector.
Like all science—like all architecture—politics looms large over Fermilab. Even the facility’s location in Illinois was likely one of President Lyndon Johnson’s deals, in this case as a favor to Illinois Governor Otto Kerner Jr.
Robert Wilson and his deputy director Edwin Goldwasser worked for open housing policies in the community around Fermilab, and made overtures to Martin Luther King, Jr., who faced some of the worst violence of his career in Chicago. Wilson implemented an equal opportunity program for Fermilab staff even before federally-mandated affirmative action. (As you might expect, the research physicists were then as now largely white and male.) The herd of bison was an homage to Wilson’s Wyoming origins, but he also hired a Native American caretaker to manage the animals.
Wilson resigned from his directorship in protest over lack of funding in 1978. Not long after, Fermilab opened its biggest experiment: the Tevatron, which turned up more fundamental particles, including the first tantalizing hints of the Higgs boson. I visited Fermilab shortly after the Tevatron’s closure (again from budget cuts), which felt like an end of an era: the Big Science version of Rust Belt uncertainty. The facility has lingering traces of Wilson’s stamp, largely from the buildings themselves. From the Archimedes spiral of the water pump building, to the sculptures, to the surprising roofs on concrete-block structures, touches of art make Fermilab something other than just another faceless science facility.
In a famous piece of testimony before the Senate in 1969, Wilson said:
Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.
Looking past the Cold War phrasing necessary for Congressional appropriations, it seems fitting to recognize that basic science—like architecture, like art—is inseparable from humanity and culture. The architecture of Fermilab is as much a statement of values as it is about function, with its accompanying successes and failures almost a metaphor for the scientific process. Sometimes science needs a geometrical roof made from recycled beer cans.