Learning From Bell Labs

The legendary crucible of innovation suggests a path for enabling scientific breakthroughs.

8 min readSep 27, 2019
At the University of Connecticut’s Tech Park, the Innovation Partnership Building is designed to promote the type of collaboration that characterized Bell Labs in its heyday. Photo © Magda Biernat

by Scott Habjan

For more than half a century, Bell Labs was the most innovative scientific research laboratory in the world. As the research and development organization of AT&T, it produced a series of game-changing technologies that shaped the world we know today. It’s virtually impossible to overstate the impact of these discoveries — from the transistor, fiber optics, and lasers, to the first cellular telephone systems and computer programming languages that are used to this day.

What exactly made Bell Labs a hotbed for innovation? Certainly, having the right expertise was essential — the company recruited the world’s leading scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Another factor was the monopoly that AT&T was then allowed to hold on America’s telephone service, which gave it the latitude to invest in open-ended research. But just as important was the culture of collaboration that the company fostered. The leaders of Bell Labs understood that physical proximity could spark innovation, and they designed its facilities to bring experts together in both deliberate and unexpected ways.

The physical environment can serve to not only attract the best and brightest, but to also foster interaction and groundbreaking collaboration between them.

At Bell Labs’ headquarters complex in suburban Murray Hill, New Jersey, all of the laboratory spaces connected to a single, vast corridor, longer than two football fields. Great minds were bound to cross paths there, leading inevitably to spontaneous and meaningful interactions. As author Jon Gertner writes in The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, “a physicist on his way to lunch in the cafeteria was like a magnet rolling past iron filings.” Throughout the labs, employees were instructed to work with their doors open, the better to promote the free flow of ideas.

A postcard view of the Bell Labs campus in Murray Hill, New Jersey.

Today, as we work to create environments for leading institutions and start-ups alike, we often take inspiration from this legendary crucible of innovation. Whether supporting the pursuit of breakthroughs in the life sciences or in engineering, the physical environment can serve to not only attract the best and brightest, but to also foster interaction and groundbreaking collaboration between them.

Breaking down silos

When Mount Sinai School of Medicine brought us on board in 2008 to design a center for science and medicine in New York City, we considered how to best serve the institution’s goal of promoting interdisciplinary collaboration. Like Bell Labs, the new facility would bring together departments that are traditionally dispersed on a campus — affording opportunities for the cross-pollination of ideas and facilitating the breakthroughs that reside on the boundaries between disciplines. Mount Sinai’s new building was also envisioned as a bridge between medical research and clinical practice — a translational model to accelerate breakthroughs that most benefit patients.

We organized the building into two-story functional “neighborhoods”: Imaging/Radiation Oncology; Cancer Clinical; Cancer Research; Genomics, Cardiovascular, and Children’s Health Research; and Brain Research. The challenge was how to connect these focused research hubs.

The Hess Center’s vertical interaction network facilitates collaboration among a multidisciplinary research community. Image © SOM

On a constrained site on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it was not possible to create a long corridor in the model of Bell Labs’ suburban campus. Instead, we translated a similar concept into a vertical arrangement: a glass-enclosed stair joins the various research neighborhoods, linking the staff lounges, pantries, and meeting rooms to create a network of spaces for interaction. The location of the lounges toggles back and forth from floor to floor, opening up views through the stair zone to create a sense of openness and transparency.

Each lab floor also includes a large, flexible, and adaptable central lab support zone to accommodate a variety of uses. Shared spaces throughout the building — a lobby, café, and conference and education center — provide further opportunities for researchers and clinicians to engage across disciplines.

A glass-enclosed stair connects the duplex research neighborhoods at Mount Sinai’s Hess Center. Photo © Eduard Hueber | archphoto

Since the Hess Center’s opening in 2013, the results are clear: NIH funding has significantly increased, Mount Sinai’s Tisch Cancer Center has received the prestigious National Cancer Institute designation, and the co-location of departments has increased collaboration between disciplines. Mount Sinai researchers were recently awarded a $13 million NIH grant for a pioneering study on the impact of genome sequencing on children’s health outcomes. For this study, principal investigators from Mount Sinai’s Genomics, Children’s Health, and Personalized Medicine Institutes teamed up together along with members of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and New York Genome Center — demonstrating the power of collaboration within the institution and beyond its walls.

Building bridges

The first building at the University of Connecticut’s Tech Park, the Innovation Partnership Building (IPB) was envisioned as a bridge between academia and industry, as well as between science and engineering. This R&D facility is enabling dynamic collaborations between UConn faculty and students and industry partners, ranging from start-ups to blue-chip companies.

The lobby at UConn’s Innovation Partnership Building provides a welcoming and informal gathering space. Photo © Magda Biernat

Inspired by the bucolic setting in Storrs, Connecticut, we conceived the building as a “machine in the garden” — a term borrowed from literary critic Leo Marx, who described the tension between America’s pastoral ideal and the arrival of machine technology. We envisioned the IPB with a similarly transformative potential: to disrupt traditional academic models and contribute to a new industrial and academic revolution. The 114,000-square-foot facility combines meeting, education, and laboratory spaces with a suite of state-of-the-art tools for advanced characterization and manufacturing. With partners like United Technologies, Pratt & Whitney, and Thermo Fisher Scientific on board, the IPB provides students and faculty with access to the sort of resources that make breakthroughs possible.

Embedded in the R&D program, the cafe at UConn’s Innovation Partnership Building is a relaxed social hub. Photo © Magda Biernat

We created a network of formal and informal spaces designed to promote collaboration and to foster “intellectual collisions” between the building’s diverse users. The experience begins at the lobby, a highly visible and multipurpose space that serves as the social nexus of the building. This open, light-filled space features seminar and meeting rooms. It also includes a café, situated adjacent to the elevators — a highly trafficked location that maximizes opportunities for students, faculty, and industry partners to cross paths.

Interaction spaces are mixed throughout the facility and beyond. These include a series of outdoor spaces, from balconies, to a covered event space below the cantilevered third-floor lab, to the building’s signature central courtyard. The result is a range of opportunities for respite, outdoor learning, and informal gathering.

Informal collaboration spaces at the IPB extend beyond its walls: balconies and other outdoor amenities make the most of the building’s magnificent setting. Photo © Magda Biernat

Since officially opening its doors just one year ago, the Innovation Partnership Building at UConn Tech Park is setting a high bar for achievement. Currently, Tech Park is overseeing a research portfolio of $25 million with industrial partners and federal agencies. In the last year, it has received significant funding from the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Office of Naval Research.

A Main Street on campus

We’ve also had the opportunity to apply these principles at an extraordinary scale in Giza, Egypt, where the National Cancer Institute’s 9-million-square-foot comprehensive cancer center is under construction. The highly integrated campus combines a 1,000-bed teaching hospital and outpatient facility with a research center, conference and training center, faculty and scientific center, nursing and medical technicians’ training institutes, and housing for residents and students.

At the New National Cancer Institute, public and staff corridors frame views above a central courtyard. Image © SOM | ATCHAIN

This vast multidisciplinary program is organized into a flexible, modular design of interlocking pavilions and courtyards, connected by discrete circulation spines for staff and visitors. The staff corridor runs the entire length of the campus — nearly twice the length of the corridor at Bell Labs. This “Main Street” will bring together researchers, clinicians, faculty, staff, and students.

This exploded axonometric diagram isolates the various components of the New National Cancer Institute campus, including the dedicated circulation spines for visitors and staff. Image © SOM

The bustling, light-filled corridor will provide efficient access to all the major campus facilities as well amenities such as a cafeteria, lounges, outdoor space, and prayer rooms. It is a place for serendipitous conversations that we hope will lead to breakthroughs in learning, patient care, and “bench-to-bedside” cancer research. What’s more, the design will serve to reinforce a sense of community among students and professionals, united by a common mission.

The staff corridor at the New National Cancer Institute will bring colleagues together in a bustling, light-filled space. Image © SOM

Setting the stage

There is, of course, no exact formula for creating the next Bell Labs. Leading institutions across the world recognize that there are many factors that drive innovation. Brilliant minds, diversity of thought and approach, collaboration, time, resources, and environment are all contributing factors. At SOM, we feel honored to contribute to the extraordinary missions of visionary institutions. We also know that for those who dedicate their careers to searching for tomorrow’s ideas, it is essential that their physical work environments make the search easier. As design professionals, we view each project through the lens of past achievements, but with a focus on the future. Each project is an opportunity to set the stage for an institution’s — and perhaps the world’s — next great breakthrough.

Scott Habjan is an architect and design leader in SOM’s Health + Science studio. Based in the New York office, his work for leading institutions includes projects for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the University of Connecticut, the Ohio State University, and Princeton University. His designs for the Mount Sinai Hess Center and Sheikh Khalifa Medical City have been awarded by the AIA Academy for Architecture for Health.

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