ON ARCHITECTURE- Best of what's a nano: Dave Matthews on Wilsdorf Hall

In covering the recent dedication of UVA's $43 million state-of-the-art Wilsdorf Hall, the local media seems to have missed the involvement in the project of one of our famous native sons.

While much was made of the $15 million donation by 1971 UVA grad– and private astronaut– Gregory Olsen to the center designed to foster collaborative research in materials science and engineering, chemical engineering and nanotechnology, little was mentioned about Dave Matthews' investment in the project. Matthews put in $500,000 for a "connector" to the chemistry library, and the Matthews family foundation put in another $500,000 for a suite of labs.  

While Matthews didn't donate as much as Olsen, his involvement was as much personal as financial.

Matthews' father, UVA physicist John W. Matthews, who died in 1977, was a student of Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf and the late Heinz G.F. Wilsdorf, for whom the building is named. John Matthews was a specialist in thin-film physics, and a pioneer in the study of epitaxy, the process of growing layers of crystal which are now used to make computer chips and micro-processors. Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf, a physics and materials science professor, broke barriers by becoming the first woman in a field other than nursing to attain a UVA full professorship, and she and her husband helped lure John Matthews from South Africa to UVA in 1964.

In addition, materials science professor William Jesser, whom VMDO architect Terry Forbes calls the "shepherd of the project," was a student of John Matthews and was instrumental in securing the collaboration of his son. Three labs in the VMDO-designed structure are named for John Matthews.

At a recent dedication dinner for the project, Jane Matthews recalled Jesser's comments about her father's importance in his life. "He told us he was coming out of retirement just so he could work in the lab named after our father," says Jane Matthews in a coffeeshop interview a few days later. "Our mother was very moved by that.

"Dr. Jesser said he wanted to create spaces where people from different disciplines could gather to chat and share ideas," says Dave Matthews. "That's how he sold me on the idea."

"It's not just a cube," Jesser agrees. "It has aesthetic qualities, and Dave Matthews made contributions to that, to the idea of drawing people in to have a cup of coffee and chat with colleagues."

Pantomiming a Boris Karlof-like image of a hunched, lonely scientist retreating to the solitude of his lab, the renowned musician illustrates how he thinks scientists have been perceived by the architecture designed for them.

"Why don't scientists and engineers get beautiful buildings to work in?" Dave Matthews asks. "Scientists and engineers have always been hidden away in their labs. This was a chance to give them a beautiful building."

Matthews helped fund the unfinished glass sky-walks or "connectors" linking Wilsdorf Hall to  the Chemical Engineering Research facility. The musician also encouraged the inclusion of a café and various lounge areas where scientists can mingle. "Because that's how great discoveries happen," he says, "two people just striking up a conversation."

 Jesser mentions the work of interior designer Lisa Bagby, who devised the color schemes and selected the building's furniture. "She helped to make it more human, to break up the long hallways with color changes on the floor," Jesser says. Bagby created what he calls a hidden "DaVinci code" (it's actually Morse code) in the floor pattern. "One of my students recently figured it out," he says.

As for the building itself, Jesser says it will "accommodate the equipment of the future," enabling researchers to study things as yet undiscovered. While he tries to demystify nanotechnology– the sexy term was coined only about a decade ago, while scientists have been studying and manipulating the the smallest properties of matter for 40 years– the area of study lends itself to the stuff of science fiction. 

For example, Jesser mentions the possibility of developing something called "smart dust"– tiny particles that can be manipulated and equipped with wireless sensors and computing circuits to perform tasks. Imagine soldiers tossing "pixie dust" around to track troop movements or sprinkling it around a building to measure temperature and humidity.  

"Dust particles collectively can do things," says Jesser, who admits he's not yet sure what exactly those "things" might be. "How do you program the dust to do something collectively? It's a vast area of study that hopefully will make a huge impact." 

On a more practical level, Jesser thinks nanotechnology will be able to miniaturize electronics, to make lightweight materials even stronger, and serve medical purposes such as tissue regeneration. 

For architect Forbes, who worked closely with Jesser and 25 other professors to develop the design, the building was about making connections, about bringing various academic disciplines together in one common space, and about facilitating this unusual work. "The real heroics of the building involved having to go two floors underground," says Forbes. "Plus, the building is so narrow– it was like putting a ship in a slip." One end of the structure faces McCormick Road between the mammoth Chemistry building and just one door down from Thornton Hall, venerable home of the engineering school.

Controlling vibration– crucial to studying nano-sized matter– depended on this "ship" having an immovable hull. The result is a cast-in-place concrete structure with deep floor slabs and large columns. "The sheer mass of the building controls vibration," says Forbes.

It was also necessary to "shield" incoming electrical power because the equipment in the building is so sensitive to electromagnetic fields. Since that equipment requires a large amount of power, three levels of steel and aluminum had to be installed on all six sides of the electrical room. In addition, all the conduits and electrical boxes had to be wrapped in steel.

"There are only around 10 to 15 buildings in the country that accommodate this kind of research," says Forbes. 


Dave Matthews hopes the new $43 million Wilsdorf Hall will be a state-of-the-art facility for research in nanotechnology– and a cool place for researchers to talk shop.