Graduate Aerospace Labs, Caltech

Intellectual Context: The Graduate Aerospace Laboratories at the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT) is well-known for pioneering some of the world’s most important advances in aeronautics and space exploration. Its faculty and students have won numerous awards over the last 80 years, including the Nobel Prize. As the field has entered a mature stage and as funding for space travel and research has waned over the last few decades, its faculty have branched out into bio-engineering and other disciplines that rely on an understanding of material properties, fluid dynamics, and aerodynamic “flow” – the latter being the most central concept of aerodynamics.

Physical Context: GALCIT is housed in the Guggenheim Building, a 33,000 square foot, historically-protected structure designed by Bertram Goodhue in 1928. Goodhue was responsible for Caltech’s first Master Plan. Between 1917 and 1938, he designed many of the campus’ iconic buildings, using ornamental motifs to architecturally represent the field of study embodied within each structure.

Program: The program for the project included the following new spaces: 1) lobby; 2) laboratories for teaching and experimental research; 3) exhibition areas; 4) conference room; 5) offices; and 6) social-interactive areas.

Design Goals: The Guggenheim Building had hardly been touched in 30 years and was in serious need of rejuvenation. The goals for the project include the following:

1. Design Achievement:

a. Architectural Representation: Find formal and spatial analogies for GALCIT’s collective and individual research, and create an environment that reflects its innovation and breadth. Shift from representation through ornamentation to representation through architectural form and space.

b. Branding: Provide a strong, new identity for GALCIT as it enters a new era, enabling it to attract the world’s top scientists, engineers, and students.

c. Maximize transparency between all spaces, promoting creative interaction and exchange of ideas.

d. Celebrate the program’s history as well as the current research taking place within it.

2. Technical Advancement:

a. Utilize the most up-to-date design software and fabrication techniques to create an environment that reflects the innovation occurring within the structure’s labs, classrooms, and offices.

3. Preservation/Restoration:

a. Allow the original structure of the building to be expressed wherever possible and set it in dialogue with its new elements.

Design Solution:

Design Achievement: The new GALCIT is uniquely suited to its creative function. It is an inspiring environment that reflects the kinds of research occurring in the building. The formal language of the design is derived from the concept of FLOW. Given that the building had previously been occupied by a large wind tunnel, the new environment was imagined as an architectural wind tunnel, a relatively neutral container into which new objects – in the form of new ceilings and wrappers – could be dropped and whose flow patterns could be metaphorically studied as they interfaced with existing walls, columns, and voids.

Technical Achievement: A range of advanced digital design and fabrication tools was deployed to achieve successful resolution of these ideas. 3d software enabled the exploration of various alternatives for the three-dimensionally flowing surfaces of both the resin lobby ceiling and the second floor interactive space ceiling, and was then used to further refine and detail their construction. Digital fabrication techniques utilized throughout the project included the following: vacuum-forming and 5-axis CNC milling for the resin lobby ceiling; water-jet and laser cutting for the third floor conference room ceiling, lobby donor nameplates, and GALCIT Directors Portrait Wall.

In particular, the design team worked closely with the Salt Lake City-based manufacturer 3form on the production of the lobby ceiling structure, whose curving, glowing, and flowing form is the basis of GALCIT’s new formal identity. Collaborating via Go-To-Meeting, the full team explored material options, broke the form into a three-dimensional topographical grid that responded to existing structural conditions, rationalized the panel system to bring it within budget, and worked with a full-scale panel mock-up to study lighting options. The actual panels were fabricated at 3form’s manufacturing facility and trucked to Caltech, where the design team closely coordinated the installation process. Building Information Modeling, utilizing results of a laser survey of all existing conditions at the lobby, enabled precision in the panel fabrication, and also allowed installation to proceed smoothly despite the complexity of the existing building systems occupying the ceiling area. Accommodations were made during design – via BIM – for all required fire and life safety and utility components such as fire sprinklers, HVAC ducts, conduits, pipes, and electrical fixtures.

Programmatic Resolution: The project is divided into several very distinct spaces:

1. Building Lobby: The building lobby is the point of entry. It is used for public events and is therefore a central venue for interactive dialogue. With bright new graphics, it gives GALCIT its new identity. The suspended plastic ceiling that occupies it flows in front of the building’s entrance. The ceiling’s topography is formed in reaction to light sources above; each source “pulls” at the ceiling’s surface, creating a dimple. The ends of the ceiling terminate at glass doors into the Laboratory of Large Space Structures.

2. First Floor Laboratory of Large Space Structures: This laboratory contains a small exhibition area for research artifacts produced by Professor Sergio Pellegrino. The lab’s double-height area was designed to accommodate large structures.

3. Second Floor interactive lounge: The suspended ceiling flows around existing structure and defines a social “cavity” pinned between the exterior wall of the building and the new Cann Laboratory (#4 below).

4. Second Floor Cann Laboratory of Experimental Innovation: This teaching laboratory occupies the central area of the second floor and looks down into the Laboratory of Large Space Structures.

5. Second Floor von Karman Conference Room and GALCIT Archives: In this expanded conference and exhibition facility, the sound-absorbing felt ceiling represents the seminal von Karman Vortex. The glass, acrylic, and steel table performs both display and conference functions.

6. Third Floor Puckett Conference Room and Display: What was once a landlocked area is now an interactive node containing a conference room and flowing display wall. Donor Allan Puckett was a principal engineer of the Delta Wing, which inspired the triangulation of much of the resulting design.

Sustainability: The design and construction processes incorporated a number of sustainable materials, products, and strategies, and successfully embodies the “green goals” of the California Institute of Technology as outlined in the Institute’s Sustainable Design Initiative. These include the following:

• Renovating an existing structure rather than adding a new development footprint to the environment.

• Use of low Volatile-Organic-Compound finishes such as paint and sealers.

• Use of Forest Stewardship Council certified wood.

• Introduction of daylighting into the building wherever possible, including through new windows in the historical façade, which were designed to blend seamlessly with the existing fenestration.

• Use of campus green energy.

• Use of low-flow plumbing fixtures in new restroom facilities.

• Recycling of existing materials from demolition, including marble countertops (reused in new restrooms).

• Energy-efficient HVAC systems with non-toxic refrigerant systems wherever units have been replaced or are new.


Project Type


Pasadena, California, United States

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