Architecture today often is praised for its tectonics, floating volumes, and sensational, gravity-defying stunts of “starchitecture.” Yet, very so often there is a building that inspires descriptions of the sublime, the experiential, and the power of light and architecture to transcend our expectations. The new Meinel Optical Sciences Research Building, designed by Phoenix-based Richärd+Bauer for the University of Arizona, Tucson, is one of these architectural rarities. Already drawing comparisons to Louis Kahn's 1965 Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, the indescribable quality of light that characterizes the best of Kahn's work also resonates in Richärd+Bauer's new building. Both an expansion and renovation of the existing College of Optical Sciences facilities, the Meinel building includes teaching and research laboratories, six floors of offices, discussion areas, conference rooms, and an auditorium. The new 47,000 square-foot cast-in-place concrete structure, wrapped on three-sides in copper-alloy panels, harmonizes with the largely brick vocabulary of the campus while reflecting the ethereal quality of the wide Arizona sky. The façade, however, is merely a prelude for what awaits inside—where light and architecture seamlessly combine to create moments of pure awe.

The Meinel Optical Sciences building began with the simple request of a “signature building for the department,” according to John Greivenkamp, professor at the College of Optical Sciences and user representative for the Meinel project. The faculty and administration wanted the architecture to express the college's reputation as a world-class research institution. Since its completion in April 2006, the project has received numerous state, regional, and national design awards, including a 2007 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honor Award for Architecture, but as Greivenkamp describes, no one expected “a building of AIA honor status…that was never our intention, but we are thrilled at the attention it has received.” The creative wedding of program and expression at the Meinel Optical Sciences building stems from Richärd+Bauer's thoughtful approach to architecture—and lighting design, which is handled in-house. James Richärd, principal, explains, “We like to tie the building and the architecture back to the primary intent—what are the programmatic requirements and what is the mission of the institution? And here, their mission statement is pretty neat—the science and application of light—how can you go wrong with that?”

Richärd+Bauer's concept for the Meinel Optical Sciences building takes inspiration from the camera obscura (an ancient optics tool used to study light), responding directly to the programmatic requirements; particularly the light-restricted “darkroom” laboratories, the sheer number of which effectively sealed-off a large portion of the interior from access to natural light. Bringing that light into the interior of the building then became a primary challenge. To “introduce light into a dark volume,” Richärd says, they designed three structure-piercing light shafts, each terminating in a two-story interaction space. The light wells occupy a different elevation and orientation, producing unique light effects. The tallest of these, roughly 85 feet, pulls abundant natural light into the below-grade lobby, creating a powerful experience. According to Greivenkamp the typical response of visitors is, “Wow!” Another aperture contains the fire stairs and Richärd+Bauer smartly solved the problem of emergency and ambient lighting by recessing standard T8 fluorescent fixtures behind vinyl panels on each rise, thereby emphasizing the sculptural quality of the shaft. Nature provides the best effects though as the transitory play of natural light animates the wells. “We let the sky paint the inside of these shafts,” Richärd says. “You get these amazing blues, purples, reds, magentas, and oranges.”

The spirit of the optical sciences also informs the division of the building into “blind” and “seeing” spaces. Extremely light-sensitive research is conducted in laboratories along the southern, windowless wall of the building—the “blind space.” Here Richärd+Bauer designed a simple and economical solution to the high ambient-light levels needed for teaching and priming experiments, and the low light-levels required for experiments which involve precise measurement of lasers, mounting standard T8 fluorescent lamps on a chasse alongside dimmable 90W PAR38 incandescent uplights. Using off-the-shelf products, Richärd+Bauer's laboratory lighting system is not only effective, but also easy to use and maintain.