Top o’ the building to you

One o’clock on a June-hot April afternoon is not the best time to uncork the Chianti. But at the Friday topping-out ceremony for the new Interdivisional Research Building (IRB), University officials and researchers took a few ceremonial sips, emulating Enrico Fermi’s team’s toast after the first controlled nuclear-chain reaction. They were also celebrating a milestone at Chicago: with 425,000 square feet of research space, the $200 million IRB will bring researchers from the Biological and Physical Sciences together under one roof.

The ceremonial raising of the IRB’s final girder mingled medieval tradition with 21st-century goals. Before a massive crane lifted it into place, construction workers, researchers, students, and administrators lined up to autograph the steel expanse. A timeline of medical and scientific milestones—from 1904, when Alexis Carrel developed early organ-transplant methods, to 2004, when NASA’s Mars rovers carried an instrument using Chicago-invented techniques—looked toward the future as researchers added questions they hope IRB scientists will answer. Here’s one: “Can we watch a biomolecule functioning in the cell in real time?”

Then the beam rose, carrying American and POW-MIA flags—and a potted fir. The last was a remnant from medieval Europe, when carpenters placed a tree atop a new wooden building to seek the forest god’s blessing on the structure and its inhabitants.

After the beam was eased into place, workers and guests adjourned for a hard-hat picnic in the shade of the work-in-progress building. Meanwhile, flags and tree stood tall above 57th Street. Eventually a layer of fireproof flocking will cover the timeline, signatures, and questions. But science will march on.


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Photos (left to right):Faculty and grad students add graffiti that ask science's big questions. After placing the IRB's final beam, workers release it from the crane's cable. Five floors below the beam, the topping-out crowd enjoys a picnic in the shade.

Photography by Dan Dry.

April 19, 2004