The Devil’s Smithy

It has come a long way from the Victorian gothic novel, but the laboratory retains its sense of slightly menacing mystery

Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,
May gaze thro’ these faint smokes curling whitely,
As thou pliest thy trade in this devil’s-smithy,
Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?

Robert Browning: The Laboratory, 1844

Robert Browning’s poem characterises the space of the laboratory as one of mysterious processes and sinister activities, a 'devil’s-smithy' in which any number of noxious materials might be brewed. In this instance, a poison to punish infidelity, commissioned by a jealous lover.

Browning’s poem describes what was already a historical space, one closer to the workshop of the alchemist or medieval practitioner of medicine than the scientific laboratories of his time, the 18th and 19th centuries. The laboratory emerges in this period as the quintessential enlightenment typology, the spatial manifestation of the new scientific societies. The compartmentalisation of science into physics, chemistry and biology is embodied by the compartmentalisation of the laboratory itself, a bureaucratic space of study and knowledge. Like the factory and to some extent the hospital, the laboratory is an essentially repetitive space, albeit one without the need for centralised control of its occupants. 

The Enlightenment commitment to the search for scientific truth embodied by the laboratory has often been the subject of satirical or fantastical speculation. The lab can even be seen as the birthplace of science fiction, in which any number of monsters and man-made disasters are cooked up. We might think for instance of Doctor Frankenstein’s laboratory hidden away in his castle dungeon, or the country house cellar in Carry on Screaming. These are clandestine, hidden-away spaces where wealthy eccentrics practice macabre experiments. The scientific credentials of those conducting these experiments is questionable: they are dangerous amateurs out of their depth or genuine doctors who have gone off the rails. Here we are in the realm of Victorian steampunk fantasies or the drawings of Edward Heath Robinson: bubbling test tubes, dials fixed to the wall and cables curling across the floor crackling with electricity. 

Despite the persistence of the mad scientist trope in popular culture, the laboratory is also still capable of conferring authority and truth.

The lesson is one of fear, of science leading us to places we don’t want to go and of scientists drunk on their own delirious dreams. The figure of the lone scientist with dangerous ambitions looms in many areas of science fiction and leads ultimately to the ludicrous villains of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. In Fleming's novel You Only Live Twice – the plot of which bears scant relationship to the later film – Bond’s arch enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld has turned an entire Japanese island into a laboratory, a garden of death planted with deadly poisonous plants.

Despite the persistence of the mad scientist trope in popular culture, the laboratory is also still capable of conferring authority and truth.

When advertising directors want to lend scientific credibility to a product – say a new brand of hair conditioner or an innovation in the field of men’s razor blades – the laboratory becomes an important motif. This is the space of the Laboratoires Garnier or perhaps, even more nebulously, The Ponds Institute, a room populated by technicians in spotless white lab coats, usually with immaculate hair and teeth, bending over microscopes or peering at computers. On the screens wire-frame models of the human head can be seen gently rotating, demonstrating the amazing chemical reactions taking place on someone’s hair follicles or charting the seemingly magical disappearance of plaque.

A less ridiculous model of the contemporary lab can be found in the work of the American architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Having completed a number of laboratory buildings for American universities, the pair describe these designs as providing generic floor space in the manner of the industrial loft. Whilst the repetitive floor plans of their buildings allow for different kinds of laboratory to be set up, the architectural opportunity lies in providing circulation and social spaces where scientists might meet and discuss their work. These spaces of accidental incident and crossover are, they claim, where the new noble prize winning discoveries will take place.

Today’s laboratory is also a space of specialisation though, one dedicated to investigating a single phenomena or a highly specific environment. Laboratories travel: they operate in space or below the sea, at the top of mountains or in inhospitable environments like Antarctica. But they are not all so nimble. The world’s largest laboratory is at CERN on the Swiss/French border. Dedicated to uncovering the fundamental laws of nature and the universe, the laboratory covers 250 acres of Switzerland and 450 acres of France. The Large Hadron collider itself is housed in a tunnel 17 miles long. Buried below the ground and populated by people engaged in an investigation that very few of us properly understand, there are still distinct echoes of the mad century scientist’s lair. 

The laboratory represents a paradoxical space. Unlike the artist’s studio, we do not expect to understand the activities housed within it. The lab is perhaps the ultimate space of modernity, a place where the future is literally being invented. It confers precision, observation and pure research – but also the unknowable, and so the potentially terrifying. 

Charles Holland and Elly Ward are founding directors of Ordinary Architecture