Cajal Wall

Society for Neuroscience + The Cajal Mural

CUAdc (in collaboration with Envision Design, PLLC)

Course: Catholic University of America design collaborative (CUAdc)

Instructor: Luis Boza, Assistant Professor

Semester: Fall 2005


In the fall of 2005, the Design Collaborative was contacted by a nationally recognized design firm to collaborate an ongoing project within their office, the new headquarters for The Society for Neuroscience, a national non-profit organization located in Washington, DC. Specifically, the project was to include the design and fabrication of a featured wall (approximately 35’ tall and 13’ wide) adjacent to the main circulation stair in the proposed design. The wall, situated in the public entry point, was to embody and convey the profession of the neuroscientist.

Neuroscientists around the world consider Santiago Ramón y Cajal and his research on the structure of the nervous system as the basis for the modern day study of neuroscience. Cajal held several appointments at universities around Europe, published extensively and received many awards for his research. Given his major contribution to the field of medicine, Santiago Ramón y Cajal was the recipient of the 1906 Nobel Laureate in Medicine.

Of particular interest during the design process was his numerous sketches illustrating the neural network structure in the cerebral cortex.  In fact, Cajal himself wished to be an artist-his gift for draftsmanship is evident in his published work. Upon analysis, it was noted that the care in the preparation of the sketches was clearly evident through the varying thicknesses of the lines, indicating varying pressure of the hand transferring graphite to the paper. The process of sketching  became a visual and communicative language, rather revolutionary in this field at this time.

Students, working collaboratively with the lead architect, decided to use the sketch as the basis for the wall.  Students proposed the use of digital tools for the design development and fabrication showing the importance on conveying the uniqueness and care of the hand, while symbolizing the innovation inherent within the sketch.

Using a specifically designed algorithm that clearly made evident the variations of gray scale tones in the line work, students translated the sketch into three dimensional virtual models.  Tool paths for a computer numeric controlled three axis milling machine were derived from the three dimensional virtual models.  Milled from formaldehyde-free medium density fiberboard panels, 16 uniquely contoured wall panels were fabricated.

The innovative method of fabrication and final panels transforms the two dimensional sketch into a three dimensional surface. When seen from afar, the sketch can be understood. When seen from a close distance, the sketch transforms into an abstract surface with no clear definition, only texture resembles that of veins beneath the surface of the skin.