Fountain of Knowledge


Sitting in the shade of fruit trees in the Beckman Institute courtyard, you can watch small birds drink from the fountain that trickles quietly there. The fountain’s basin is a Moorish-inspired four-leaf-clover design, but above that it takes a very Caltech turn. 

A polyhedron of 38 triangular and square granite faces, the fountain borrows its shape from the Archimedean solid known as a snub cube. Water flows from its top and tightly hugs the geometric form, giving the cube a shimmery quality. 

The Beckman Institute was built in 1989 as a collaborative space for biologists and chemists. The Institute’s founding director, Harry Gray, was charged with designing a fountain for the building’s central courtyard that would represent the aims of the building and its inhabitants. 

Gray and crystallographer Bill Schaefer settled on the snub cube design because of its likeness to ferritin, a protein composed of a core of thousands of iron atoms surrounded by an organic protein shell. With its inorganic and organic components, the protein seemed a perfect representation of the Beckman Institute’s goal of combining chemistry and biology. 

Once they had their concept, Gray and Schaefer set out to secure funding for its construction. To persuade Caltech’s then-president Marvin Goldberger that the multifaceted shape would function well as a fountain, the pair constructed a model of the cube from cardboard and carried it, along with a pitcher of water, into Goldberger’s office. 

Accounts diverge on whether Gray actually poured water over the cube or merely teetered the jug over the president’s expensive rug, but Gray distinctly remembers Goldberger saying, “Stop, Harry, I’ll give you the money.” 

—Lori Dajose