Britain’s most important historic laboratory is under threat

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Britain’s most important historic laboratory is under threat
An early photograph of James Clerk Maxwell’s original Cavendish Laboratory (built 1874)
Britain’s most important historic laboratory is under threat
An early photograph of James Clerk Maxwell’s original Cavendish Laboratory (built 1874)

Amidst a chaotic jumble of museums, offices and laboratories in the centre of Cambridge there is one building that can legitimately claim to have changed the world: the Cavendish Laboratory, designed by the great Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell, where atoms were split, sub-atomic particles discovered and DNA unravelled.

But the Cavendish may not survive in its current form for long. The ‘New Museums Site’ in which it lies is about to undergo a dramatic renovation: the scientific departments – in search of space and up-to-date facilities – have largely moved out of the city, and so the university wants to ‘create a window into the site’s history’. A noble aim, especially when the history of the place is so rich. But, bizarrely, the Cavendish Laboratory is slated for partial demolition. In the name of commemorating past achievement, we are about to lose some of the country’s most important scientific architecture.

The original Cavendish occupies the north-west corner of the site: it is an L-shaped building which has been extended over the years. The most notable addition is the Grade II Listed, 1933 ‘Mond Laboratory’, one of the minor masterpieces of British modernism, based on Bauhaus principles and adorned with a crocodile (said to represent the fearsome prof Ernest Rutherford) carved by Eric Gill. []

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