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Architecture of the Mesa Laboratory

As you travel up a winding road towards the top of Table Mesa, passing prairie grass, scattered pine trees and grazing mule deer, you approach NCAR’s flagship, the Mesa Laboratory. The laboratory building sits atop the small highland, above the city of Boulder, Colorado, and in the shadow of red sandstone rock formations called “Flatirons”, which tower to the west.

Built in the early 1960’s, the Mesa Laboratory was designed by well-known architect I.M. Pei. The building includes research facilities, common areas, and courtyards that blend with, and open onto, the magnificent environmental setting.

Although the arrangement of pieces within the complex appears random, it is actually careful planned. Pei organized the offices and laboratories within two tall towers to make sure researchers could have time alone, yet the maze-like atmosphere of the building encourages casual meetings in the halls and common areas, which Walter Roberts, NCAR’s founding director, believed were an important part of scientific research and deliberation.

The Mesa Laboratory is a collection of abstract, geometric unfinished concrete forms that look a bit like the surrounding western landscape. The unfinished dark reddish-brown concrete walls are similar in color to the rocks of the “Flatiron” outcrops towering to the west side of the Laboratory. To match the color of the rocks, and make the building look like a part of the landscape, sand, ground from a nearby quarry, was added to the concrete. Pei’s inspiration for the Mesa Lab design came from the geometric forms of Anasazi cliff dwellings found in the cliffs of the Mesa Verde area of southwest Colorado.

"You just cannot compete with the scale of the Rockies. So we tried to make a building that was without the conventional scale you get from recognizable floor heights—as in those monolithic structures that still survive from the cliff-dwelling Indians."

— I.M. Pei

© 2003 UCAR