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This Land Art Is Helping Physicists Study The Universe

To protect a new particle accelerator from vibrations from nearby streets, Snøhetta came up with an unusual solution: earthworks.

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A synchrotron is an incredibly important tool in the scientist's arsenal. It's a special type of particle accelerator that blasts electrons through a series of chambers to make them travel close to light speed, producing ultra-bright light beams that allow researchers to analyze materials at the molecular level.

They play a critical part in unlocking how the universe works—and they require the utmost precision. Even the slightest interruptions, such as vibrations from cars or trains, could destroy the entire process. So when Lund University, in southern Sweden, decided to build a new synchrotron, it enlisted Snøhetta to design a buffer to protect it using the landscape itself to create a natural sound dampener.

What resulted was an unprecedented project that borrowed ideas from acoustics and land art to create a protected landscape for groundbreaking science.

The Science of Synchrotrons

The Max IV laboratory is located on the fringes of Lund, amidst the flat farmland of southern Sweden. It's part of a new master plan that will remake the area into a busy mixed-use science and research district—including a highway and new tram line not far away from the building.

Those plans for development were the biggest concern for the lab's scientists, who were worried that the streetcars and automobiles would send vibrations through the ground to the accelerator—potentially affecting their research. Snøhetta's job would be to create a landscape that could stop those costly vibrations before they reached the lab itself. "First, I said, okay, maybe you picked the wrong site," Jenny Osuldsen, the lead designer on the landscape and a partner at Snøhetta, quips. "They did not think that was funny at all."

To understand why synchrotrons are so fragile and susceptible to vibration, it helps to know something about how they work. First, a powerful electron gun shoots a beam of electrons into an underground linear accelerator. Then, the subatomic particles enter a ring-shaped structure fitted with magnets to further increases their speed. At this point, the electron beam is about as thick as a strand of human hair and it shines 10 billion times brighter than the sun. Scientists then use that light beam to conduct experiments about everything from semiconductor physics and materials science to atomic and molecular physics.

For example, researchers at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, in New York, are using their synchrotron to analyze cells and genomes to understand evolution at the molecular level, to understand the chemistry behind alternative energy sources, and to develop new pharmaceuticals. With the help of a synchrotron, scientists were able to unravel the surface protein of a bacteria that causes Lyme disease by blasting it with bright light. Analyzing that collision of light against the protein allowed them to then develop a vaccine.

A Perfect Problem For Parametrics

Beyond the problem of vibrations, the project had quite a few other legal and design restrictions. The site measured 19 hectares, about the size of 35 football fields, and a local law required the architects to keep all excavated soil on-site. Since the lab is partially underground, that amounted to quite a bit of earth. The city also carefully restricted storm water runoff. Finally, there was a big time crunch: Construction on the landscape began at about the same time as the building itself, and Snøhetta had only about seven weeks to develop a design—a rippled, wavy surface composed of dozens of hills.

"It's classical landscape architecture parameters, but then it had this new vibration parameter," Osuldsen says. "We thought, wow, we can actually work in parametric design, so that's how the concept started." The basic acoustic concept guiding the design was that the rougher the surface, the more it dampens sound and vibrations. Think of it as soundproofing foam—the bumpy, spongy material you can find on Amazon—but blown up at the scale of a landscape and made from soil. Vibrations travel in waves and the hills block the waves.

The Statics and Dynamics Group, an engineering team with whom Snøhetta worked, arrived at a mound height of 15 feet based on the amplitude of vibration waves from the highway. Using Grasshopper, a 3-D modeling program, Osuldsen and her team began thinking about how that bumpy surface should look, and how the synchrotron's function could even inform the pattern. Inside a synchrotron's ring-shaped structure, particles release radiation that travels tangentially. Snøhetta envisioned a landscape of hills based on those tangents, spiraling outwards from the building's ringed layout.

The valleys between these artificial hills served a secondary purpose, by channeling storm water into a holding pond where it could eventually soak back into the earth. After the 3-D model was finalized, Snøhetta's design team sent the file directly to the GPS of the bulldozers at work on the site—as the contractors excavated the area for the linear accelerator, the bulldozer operators could simply move that soil to its final position as a hillock in one fell swoop. And because most of the soil on-site was dense clay, the landscaped mounds held their shape without the need for special reinforcements.

"Honestly we would not be able to do it without a 3-D program and the plug-in I’m sure," Osuldsen says. "Parametric design is a tool, and for this project it worked perfect. For other projects it might not work, but at least we know it’s a tool we can use. Redistributing soil is a time-consuming process and putting the 3-D model into the GPS actually made a big difference. We saved so much time and saved so much money. It’s really good equipment, but the methodology isn't for every project."

While Snøhetta believes this is the first instance of using a parametrically designed landscape to mitigate vibrations, it's not the first time landforms have been used as noise-muffling problem solvers: Designers built ridged earthworks around Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to combat the cacophony from jets overhead. While sound waves normally reflect off of flat surfaces, these interventions stop them. It's a similar principle to anechoic chambers, whose jagged, foam-lined walls trap and absorb sound waves.

A Particle Accelerator In A Meadow

While it serves a very specific acoustic purpose, the project has an environmental layer, as well. This part of agriculture-heavy southern Sweden has lost 80% of its natural meadowland in the last 100 years, and Snøhetta decided that restoring plant biodiversity to the landscape was essential. To that end, it planted a natural meadow atop the hills.

The team worked with agriculture scientists to come up with a specific plant mix that would mimic what grew there before the land was turned into grain fields. After the seeds purchased from a bank didn't take, Snøhetta worked with a neighboring nature reserve to harvest hay cut when the grasses were naturally seeding and scattered it over the hills to recreate the meadowland. In the future, sheep will graze on the land.

With the landscape plan outside of the synchrotron complete, Snøhetta then turned its eye to the area inside the structure's ringed plan, which measured about four acres. "The scientists said, 'No, you don’t need anything there—just a walkway through it,'" Osuldsen says. "But a landscape is never nothing. A site is never nothing. Even if they say, 'No, we don’t need anything,' it has to be something."

She and her team decided to frame the area as an homage to Carl von Linné, a famous 18th-century botanist who worked at Lund University, and planted a mini-arboretum in his honor. Snøhetta also thought that the scientists might get bored, so the designers built a labyrinth lined with Swedish stones and added a running track.

"In the middle, there’s a pergola and hopefully they can have some fun," Osuldsen jokes. "In the summer you could have a barbecue—maybe you could grill one of the sheep."

Designing a Landscape for Longevity

While the laboratory has one specific purpose, Snøhetta wants the landscape itself to last for decades.

"You can't use a linear accelerator for anything else, so I think that the life of the landscape is much more adaptable than the buildings are," Osuldsen says. "I think they'd be more likely to tear down the building and do something different than tear down the landscape. Since southern Sweden is extremely flat with very gentle slopes all over, just to have these hills is nice. They're something that kids could use to learn how to go skiing. When the pond freezes, you can go skating on it—the landscape could be a destination. All these small things we try to add have been really important."

While there's virtually nothing around the lab and its landscape today, that will all change as the science district is built up. Osuldsen believes that the areas between buildings will become more crucial than ever in the future. Over time, perhaps the hilly swath of land will take on another layer of significance.

"In the public realm, landscapes will be the meeting points where people actually interact, and since everyone is in cyberspace these days, maybe landscapes are even more important," she says. "We know about climate change and flooding, so all these issues have to be solved at the same time that we're building new buildings. Nobody says, 'I don't like parks, I don't like green,' but clients say, 'We don't have any money for maintenance so we can't have trees; let's just have a hard surface.' We have to rethink that [mentality]. We have to be more conscious of how we're using all the in-between spaces because they belong to all of us."

I ask Osulden if she thinks the hills are emblematic of that way of thinking. "At least it's not the opposite!" she says.

All Images: courtesy Snøhetta