Art, Architecture and Science

May 8, 2013

The Betty Irene Moore Natural Sciences (BIMNS) Building at Mills College has been highly praised. It exceeded expectations with its women in science installation, building resource monitoring display and rainwater collection system, for which it earned a LEED® Platinum certification. But the term “sustainable” hardly does the building justice, diluted as it has become from overuse as an industry buzzword.  Let’s call BIMNS “suSTAYnable” instead, since it’s one of those special, inviting spaces that makes you want to, well, stay. In addition to the long list of innovative design strategies and building features, the project has accomplished something beyond what can be ticked off on a LEED scorecard. The environment nurtures a pleasing quiet; it is chic and elegant, yet strong—think Michelle Obama at an Inaugural Ball. This texture of sophistication and rigor is brought about only by the more mysterious feats of design.

The building owes part of its je ne sais quoi to the legacy of the campus on which it sits. The present day campus was founded in 1871 by Cyrus and Susan Mills. From the Second Empire style of Mills Hall (a California Historical Landmark), to Julia Morgan’s iconic El Campanil bell tower, to the Spanish Colonial Revival buildings designed by Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., the Mills campus offers an archaeological insight into the history of California architecture. EHDD became privileged to work on the historic campus in the 1980s under the trusted guidance of founding principal, Peter Dodge. During a period when the college had no acting campus architect, Dodge led the charge on the completion of the Aron Arts Center, Olin Library and the restoration of Mills Hall and Olney Hall, among other endeavors. History has accumulated naturally on this campus; it does not aggressively cling to legacy, nor is it smothered by the cold, blaring progress of technology.  

Situated on the Southeast edge of Holmgren Meadow, the BIMNS building stands in respectful dialogue with the oldest building on campus (Mills Hall). Decidedly contemporary without being flashy, BIMNS gives a much needed facelift to the entrance of the science hub of the campus. There is no mistake that this is a green building; the color ushers students, faculty and visitors in and out of the building’s doors via passage under a vine-covered trellis.

Inside, there is a resource monitoring system that displays the building’s energy usage, and a rain water collection tank in the courtyard beyond. The rainwater collection serves a very functional purpose, but there’s an art to it too. A sculptor was commissioned to design the bronze leaves that guide water down multiple cascading falls before being collected in the tank. Back inside the building, a spectrum of bright colors is tossed onto one of the large lobby walls, filtered through dichroic glass panels in the skylights. This pattern will shift throughout the day and year, depending on the sun’s position. It’s a pragmatic design unafraid of creative flourish. It responds elegantly to logistical questions, while remaining deeply concerned with the aesthetic, the ethical, and the holistic.

The front lobby also houses the art installation entitled Women Hold up Half the Sky. Karen Fiene (campus Architect , former EHDD principal and its first female president) explains that the exhibit “was created both to educate students about the great women leaders in the sciences and also to present mentors, Mills alumnae, who are currently in leading roles practicing as scientists across many allied disciplines.” The successes of Mills’ alumnae roll by on one monitor, while the projection above features the silhouettes of influential women of science. Contemporary media is utilized to look back in time with the intention of inspiring the young women scientists of our future. Fiene explains that part of the goal was to “challenge perceptions of women in the male dominated fields of the natural sciences”—a topic not unfamiliar in architecture. How fitting then, that two exemplary women leaders in their own field, Karen Fiene and EHDD principal in charge Jennifer Devlin, contributed so much to this building, on this campus that is also home to six Julia Morgan projects.

The BIMNS building is the link between the quad at Holmgren Meadow and the flourish of scientific inquiry housed in the buildings to the east, but that’s not all. The interior balances the demands of state of the art labs with environmental responsibility; quiet and comfortable classrooms with gathering spaces that encourage interaction. Furthermore, BIMNS is truly suSTAYnable, fostering a lasting interplay not only amongst its users, but between the fields of architecture and science, history and future, modesty and innovation, sustainability and art.

Braden Marks
Project Assistant at EHDD and a third-year MFA Candidate in the Creative Writing program at SFSU

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