In 2015, the Milner Centre undertook the construction of a new building, thanks to a £5 million charitable donation by Dr. Jonathan Milner, the largest gift of its kind in the University of Bath’s history.
Milner’s felt that the key to this new centre was a building. Studying the problem and the opportunity presented by creating a new building, we realized that the new building would help define who we are and how we work. Poorly designed spaces can isolate people and make it difficult to work, but a well-designed space can bring people together and create a more productive working environment. We decided to start literally from the ground up to create a space that fosters a strong intellectual culture, one that is collegial, collaborative, and multidisciplinary.
Starting with the idea that form follows function, we began simply by focusing on a layout- a simple two-story box with labs and offices- that provided a lot of space efficiently. Boxes are simple and therefore cheap to build, allowing for maximum space and minimizing the chance of construction problems and cost overruns. Making it long and skinny means lots of windows, and therefore lots of offices.
Once we had this basic layout, we worked on creating a highly collaborative space. Even or perhaps especially in the digital age, proximity matters. People tend to have closer ties with people who are physically closer, and so we designed the building to bring us together- long hallways full of offices mix PIs, postdocs, and PhD students, making it easy to talk to colleagues. We were also inspired by Steve Jobs’ Pixar Building, which was designed with shared spaces- meeting rooms, kitchens, water coolers, bathrooms, screening rooms- in the center, which forced people from different parts of the company to run into each other. The Pixar building was in turn inspired by the Bell Labs campus designed by futurist architect Eero Saarnen- with a large central area where people came together to share ideas. With the idea of creating a highly interactive space in mind, we put all the shared spaces- our coffee space, lecture theater, kitchen, and bathrooms- near the entrance, to force people to pass each other every time they left the office or entered and exited the building.
Once we had the space and functionality we needed, we tried to establish a unique visual identity and style. Unable to decide between a modern aesthetic and a more traditional, Neoclassical style of the sort Bath is famous for, we did both. The building combines neoclassical elements- proportion, repetition, symmetry, simplicity- with more modern flourishes to create a building that looks both 18th- and 21st- century, glass and metal combined with Jurassic limestone.
While the building was designed with cost in mind, we added a few flourishes. The window of the social space has a broad curved, inspired by the view from a fishing boat out over the pacific. The ceiling has a spiral design meant to invoke a nautilus, or perhaps an ammonite- it is also a visual play on the word “evolution”, which means to unroll, like the spiral does. Finally, to the north facade, we added the alignment wall.