Abstract: With the constantly evolving initiatives of astronomical exploration comes the obsolescence of instruments conceived to support research; a sure sign of the scientific process. However, architecture constructed to shelter these constantly shifting tools often remains fixed, growing incapable of supporting advancing technology. Typically, these shelters are sidelined in favor of new infrastructure. Many optical observatories around the world face this issue and choose between preserving the past or abandoning the site altogether. That these buildings are no longer needed for revolutionary research shouldn’t be disappointing: it is a signal of human achievement, and the scientific process requires a more deliberate model for architectural response that celebrates the need for adaptive reuse as a direct result of new knowledge.
Paradigm shifts in scientific thought can result in obsolete built infrastructure, which is often discarded and replaced –– one form of adaptation. Some architects anticipate this need for change and design deliberate frameworks that are flexible enough to accommodate both permanence and transience –– another form of adaptation. However, optical observatories are usually driven by a specific need to shelter massive telescopes, a type of instrument so large it is married to the architecture itself, creating a mixed circumstance between permanence and flexibility.
One such site, the Yerkes Observatory, has been referred to as “the birthplace of modern astrophysics” since its establishment in 1897. However, as of 2018, the University of Chicago no longer has a need for its once revolutionary technology. The transformation of the Yerkes Observatory contributes to the growing field of Adaptive Reuse, but the implications of this intervention stretch far beyond a single project, providing a model for how other iconic educational sites can evolve. The intervention design is organized into three main components. First, celebrating the site’s revolutionary past through archival storytelling. Second, connecting to the present by mediating between the local community context and scientific literacy. Third, preparing for the future by assembling architecture as a flexible educational tool.