Histories and Historical Narratives of Laboratory Spaces
In spite of the bewildering range of things and arrangements called labs, hybrid labs around the globe are, nonetheless, disarticulating the term from its current rootless commercialism and re-articulating it to indicate a heterogeneity of techniques, objects, and experiments. As we put it earlier, nearly all labs are Janus-faced. Janus was the Roman god of transitions and doorways; today’s hybrid labs are passages with connections to both the future and the past. In order to develop a vocabulary and method that will allow us to think and talk about hybrid labs, the trick for us is to figure out to which pasts and which futures they look. While we touch on monasteries, apothecaries and labs below in terms of how they are all part of a family of related situated practices, each space is also specific to the discourse network of its own time and place, even while they are all tied together in a longer continuity or genealogy.
Just as the boundaries of contemporary labs may be dependent on a gesture of naming or difficult to locate for other reasons, pre-modern spaces where technical knowledge was produced were also not clearly bounded, distinct places, but they were often connected to other, more established kinds of space, such as the monastery or the home. Thus, while many of the things necessary to make a lab already existed in the pre-modern period, they were not articulated in the manner that we imagine as “the modern lab,” nor were the environments in which they operated necessarily recognized as a distinct kind of space. As a result, the narratives of lab space history are often conflicted, and dependent on the distinctions that scholars make, consciously or not, about what counts as legitimate practices for the production of knowledge While our discussion of contemporary labs can attempt to measure the distance between a given lab’s statements about itself and its actual goals and activities as reflected in the availability of information on its space, since most labs prior to the late nineteenth century did not usually account for themselves or their space in writing, our discussion of early spaces of technical knowledge production looks instead at architectural plans, illustrations, and historical narratives to pry loose to investigate the shifting, variable, and duplicitous nature of lab discourse.
It’s important to avoid anachronism by not imposing the character of the modern laboratory onto premodern spaces, but it’s also crucial to be able to invoke these spaces in order to understand how a tension between the dictates of institutional power and the activities of actual individuals has always shaped the production of knowledge. The consequence of entirely excluding these spaces from consideration would be a perpetuation of what Harold Innis calls a “monopoly of knowledge”—that is, a set of limits on who is excluded and included from sanctioned lab spaces throughout the historical record and into the present moment.14
Graeme Gooday introduces the notion that, given certain contingencies of gender and geography, “boundaries between laboratories and other spaces—especially domestic kitchens—could be permeable or nonexistent.” Therefore “some spaces served as experimental laboratories without ever being designated as such.” He goes on to list the three primary modes of activity that historically took place in laboratories: “organic genesis, practical experimentation, and material manufacture.”15 Although Gooday does not mention the legendary Plan of St. Gall—the never-realized architectural plan from 820–830 C.E. for an entire monastic community in Switzerland, which also stood as an ideal for nearly all Benedictine monasteries built thereafter—the plan does include spaces for all three modes of activities. Documents for the Plan describe all the elements (or, in Christopher Alexander’s terms, “patterns”) one would also find in a laboratory, but in different configurations and combinations as part of an abbey. They are articulated differently, named differently, and the discourse around them differs as well.
As with the characteristics of later iterations of the Benediktbeuern Abbey in Bavaria, the Plan of St. Gall lays out a complex visual proposal for a community of 110 monks and 160 laypeople. Their interactions with each other and their various labors are carefully controlled via an imagined space that’s both open and closed; dedicated to contemplation, quiet and learning; but also amenable to labor, making and doing. Strategically placed architectural features create a dense, variable, and porous structure that would allow monks to exist in a central, enclosed inner cloister while still having access to surrounding buildings and services. For example, consider the arcades in the Plan of St. Gall; Alexander reminds us that these “covered walkways at the edge of buildings, which are partly inside, partly outside—play a vital role in the way that people interact with buildings” insofar as they “create an ambiguous territory between the public world and the private world.”16
The Plan of St. Gall also specifies the production of a space dedicated to a range of labors and laborers. For example, the health and medicine buildings to the northeast of the cloister include an infirmary complex; a house for physicians that is connected to a pharmacy and a sick ward; a house for bleeding; two bathhouses and a (highly organized, methodically designed) medicinal herb garden, all of which are also spatially arranged to enable very specific traffic patterns between the Abbott, physicians, monks, and serfs. Such arrangements put entities that would later be extracted from the complex and become self-contained into close relation with each other, much like apothecaries and pharmacies.17 Similar structures and traffic patterns also exist in the buildings to the west of the inner cloister that contain connected workshop spaces for saddlers, shoe makers, shield makers, sword grinders, turners, curriers, blacksmiths and goldsmiths. These workshops arranged around two central fireplaces, with dwelling quarters on the outer edges of the complex.
Just because the Plan of St. Gall was never built and remains in the realm of the ideal doesn’t mean that it didn’t do real work; it is a textbook example of imaginary media in this respect. Many spaces of knowledge production drew on it for inspiration, notably the Benedikteuern Abbey in Bavaria, Germany, originally a monastery of the Benedictine Order built in in 739–740 and rebuilt numerous times thereafter. As Myles W. Jackson convincingly argues, the architecture of the cloister shaped and was shaped by the three philosophical pillars of the Rule of Saint Benedict: labor, silence, and secrecy. To underscore the historical impact of the cloister’s architecture, Jackson also shows how the particularities of this space (beyond the library and the garden) and its use for a 1000-year-old tradition in the manufacturing, cutting and polishing of glass influenced Joseph Von Fraunhoffer’s eighteenth-century manufacture of achromatic lenses for telescopes. Specifically, Jackson provides an extensive description of the space within and around the cloister to make clear that other spaces for the production of technical knowledge existed for many centuries prior to the proliferation of laboratories or “elaboratories” in the sixteenth century.
The articulation of such spaces to larger communities, especially ones that included sites of material production, was also vital. For example, the Benedikteuern Abbey cloister was a large, well-lit space “located in the midst of a large forest, where wood for fuel was in abundant supply.” Also, “a quarry of quartz, a key ingredient of glass, was only ten kilometers away”—no doubt co-emergent with the fact that Benedictine monks and artisans from the surrounding communities were well versed in optical theory and practice and, in later centuries, possessed “lavish collections of physical instruments and texts dealing with glass manufacture and optical theory.” Even the large, open space of the cloister itself was perfectly suited for experimenting with rays of light emitted from sodium lamps.18 Despite the fact that all of the elements for the singular entity that will later be dubbed a “laboratory” are here, they are articulated differently and the assemblage of the abbey is distinct in its own right.
This discussion of the architectural features of monasteries demonstrates that there are numerous, unaccounted-for genealogies of spaces related to the modern laboratory but that these spaces also have their own histories and other trajectories, so tracing the contemporary lab’s relative beginnings is far from straightforward. There were, for example, anatomical theaters dating back as far as 1594 in Padua, Italy which were designed to educate the public about human anatomy through dissections. These dissections took place on a central, sunken table, surrounded by tiered viewing areas. Around the perimeter of the space, there were an array of skeletons with instructional signage. Such theaters rearticulated the boundaries between public and private in a manner different than the monasteries, in this case bringing the public into a clearly defined space, and turning dissections into pedagogical performances rather than the more informal, loose mode of instruction that might have taken place in abbey workshops. However, while the architectural spaces and possibilities for observation for the public are a key form of this constellation of knowledge, the implication of “public” was very limited: anatomical theater public might consist of only (male) students and faculty.
The history of apothecaries and their work spaces also deserves mention (both of which are designated by the word “apothecary,” highlighting the strength of the articulation between space, technique and people in this instance). As Crosland explains, the earliest accounts of apothecaries date back to ancient Babylon. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in England, they had attained enough stature to form a professional organization. Most were dedicated to the manual preparation and sale of medicines to physicians and patients. Like the denizens of the anatomical theaters, apothecaries required a well-lit space with windows and a central table for preparation and demonstration of their medicines. Apothecaries also usually featured abundant shelves and cupboards for storage, with counters running along the lower half of the shelves creating another family resemblance to a domestic kitchen. While apothecaries were eventually viewed as inferior to other sites of experimentation because of their reliance on manual work, this emphasis on labor puts them in the same lineage of spaces as the Benedictine abbeys. It also anticipates the reversal that took place in university life in the coming centuries to include rather than shun laboratories as places of hands-on, physical work.19 That said, apothecaries were distinct from later university-based laboratories in that they served a clear public and profit-oriented function and not an educational function.20
We have already noted that the sixteenth century is considered the official point at which entities called “laboratories” start to proliferate, particularly as alchemical laboratories.21 If we are to include the many sites at which experimental work took place in the late seventeenth century, we need to include, as Steven Shapin points out, a variety of other venues:
[the] instrument maker’s shop . . . the coffeehouse, the royal palace, the rooms of college fellows, and associated collegiate and university structures. But by far the most significant venues were the private residences of gentlemen or, at any rate, sites where places of scientific work were coextensive with places of residence, whether owned or rented. The overwhelming majority of experimental trials, displays, and discussions that we know about occurred within private residences.22
As Ursula Klein, notes, though, as important as Shapin’s intervention regarding the private residences of gentlemen natural philosophers in the history of laboratory spaces is, it requires some tweaking. Klein is deeply invested in the material culture of laboratories and argues that Shapin’s focus on experimental philosophy and epistemology is too narrow to provide a workable account of how experimental investigation became linked to modern labor practices and commercial innovation (a crucial topic for the history of media labs especially). Like us, she is deeply interested in the “hybrid experts” steeped in the practical, hands-on business of material production as well as the weightier philosophical concerns of the gentleman scientists.23
If the history of labs is always told solely in terms of those entities properly called “labs,” and if that same history is always coupled with assertions about what does or does not count as a lab, then not only is the history significantly foreshortened—it’s also incomplete. Such a truncated history inaccurately legitimizes some techniques for the production of knowledge over others. If we are going to make sense of the history of labs, or indeed, of contemporary hybrid labs, we need to juxtapose that history with traditions, practices, techniques and perspectives from other times and places. And we probably need to venture into the literatures of other disciplines in order to do so. When Crosland goes on to assert that “[i]t is not enough to bring apparatus into an ordinary room to make it into a laboratory” and that, for example, “one would not describe a room as a kitchen unless it had special facilities for cooking,” not only is he overlooking the very wide range of doings that might fall under the category of “practical science;” he is neglecting the very wide range of things that have counted as part of an apparatus, and the long history of spaces that served as as labs.24 By contrast, we argue that the spaces of the hybrid labs we explore in this book need to be considered in terms of a much richer and longer set of histories than a certain line of thinking in the history of science might lead us to believe. In other words, contemporary hybrid labs are not merely part of a genealogy of labs, but various other spaces of making and doing, of interacting and imagined communities.
In later abbeys, such as the fourteenth century iteration of Glastonbury Abbey, we can see the continuation and gradual isolation of a space called the “Abbot’s kitchen.” This was both a more specialized and more elaborate space than the cluster of workshop spaces in the Plan of St. Gall. It was attached to, but still separate from, the Abbot’s main residence, and featured four fireplaces for roasting, boiling, baking and washing. There were smoke outlets above each fireplace, which provided necessary ventilation, and a substantial lantern. Consider the fact that women have, of course, long been relegated to the kitchen as the heart of the domestic sphere but also that, as Alix Cooper points out, in early modern times, “kitchens and basements or root cellars formed improvised laboratories for women to tinker with and write down medical recipes.”25 However, over the coming centuries, women saw the gradual appropriation and renaming of the kitchen as laboratory which meant they were essentially told they might belong in a kitchen, the kitchen might be a lab, a lab might even be in a kitchen, but a lab is not for them.
In the 1860s, the University of Oxford decided to extend their science museum by attaching a new chemistry building to it. Informally, they called a laboratory, but it was modeled on and named after the Abbot’s kitchen because of its “chimney-based architecture.” This kitchen/laboratory space—emphatically not a domestic kitchen occupied by women, separate from but connected to a science museum at a major institution of higher learning—is an appropriate spatial allegory for the genealogical relationship between the modern lab and earlier articulations. The naming and architectural strategies at work here are shot through with power relations, as always. Women (who had in effect been working in kitchen-cum-laboratories for most of their lives) were not allowed to attend Oxford until the 1870s. At the time the Abbot’s kitchen opened, women were allowed inside physics and biology teaching laboratories but were not permitted to undertake research in any of these laboratories, as they were not considered actual members of the university community and could not take exams or graduate until 1920.26 By 1881, the rearticulation was complete, as the field of metallurgy used “kitchen” as a synonym for “laboratory,” to describe the “space between the fire and flue bridges of a reverberatory furnace in which work is performed.”27 Delineating the discursive, spatial and technical connections between kitchen and laboratory reminds us once again how the spaces that preceded laboratories were not necessarily separate and isolated. There is a complex history of gender and power relations behind the many turns and twists involved in establishing labs as separate, special places for chemical experimentation.28