The Building That Inspired Extraordinary Innovation

When histories come to be written about the most culturally significant constructions of the 20th and early 21st Century, alongside the trophy skyscrapers historians will surely put a giant tick alongside the landscape and buildings that straddle the border between France and Switzerland, sitting between the Jura mountains and the Alps – where CERN (Conseil Europe en pour la Recherche Nucleaire) lives.

While we’re visually aware of the architecture, design and landscapes of the big financial centres, and giants of consumer technology (Apple’s new Spaceship Campus), there’s a kind of cultural invisibility about the building and landscape where scientists transformed our age.

Professor David Jenkins, of the Department of Physics at York, and Dr John Schofield, Head of the University’s Department of Archaeology just released a fascinating study of the archeology and buildings of the CERN landscape. These buildings have generated innovation that have massively changed our world, as the authors say, “CERN is amongst the most important places on Earth. It is hard to think of anywhere more significant for all of humanity.”

Indeed the authors point out, the arrangement of Tim Berners-Lee’s office and surrounding space has been noted before, “The location in a nondescript corridor of identical offices is marked by a plaque, the wording of which can be seen in Figure 3. Here CERN’s sociability is represented. In Merz’s (1998) study of this ‘Theory Corridor’, she noted how doors were usually left open, allowing the conversations which were to have such extraordinary and far-reaching impact.”

(This image and feature image Dr John Schofield)

The authors speculate on what the archeology of the building itself reveals about the scientific leaps made by scientists. “Do the physical traces all point to a slow and steady creep of progress, or are there moments evident in buildings and amongst the tangles of cabling when everything changes gear and moves to another level? From our encounters, it is a creeping progress that appears prominent, and perhaps that is the final contradiction: it is the big moments – the celebrated discoveries – that take us forward together as humanity but the process is characterised by scientists experimenting in outdated and unspectacular buildings that ultimately allow paradigms to shift.”

What might architects, engineers and landscapers learn from this? Maybe it’s the work that matters, and the flashily designed highly lauded spaces of new tech companies are just a highly visible form of brand marketing. Yet among all the factors one might include in assessing how the extraordinary innovation at CERN happened - the research, the gathering of extraordinary bright people in one space, team management, proper funding, the tools and equipment - it would be equally naive to ignore how the built environment and landscape shaped behaviours, relationships and thinking.

So excuse me while I get some swiss chocolate, and have a think in my newly customised, specially dilapidated CERN room.  

Read the full research paper here

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