Chapter 1. Prairie to Petascale: An Overview
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1 Chapter 1 Prairie to Petascale An Overview On the southwestern edge of the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois, a two-story glass foyer glows blue against the dark night of Oak Street and St. Mary’s Road. The rear of the simple modern rectangular building is unbroken brick veneer and backs onto the campus mail and recycling centers and is a stone’s throw from the South Neil Street commercial corridor. Inside, two-foot-diameter pipes circulate chilled water around the massive electrical system that services the resident supercomputer; the data center machine room, with its below-floor vast array of cables, is efficiently water and air cooled. This is the house where Blue Waters lives. The building is the National Petascale Computing Facility (NPCF), an eighty-eight-thousand-square-foot structure designed by Gensler, an international architecture and engineering firm. Its $72.5 million cost was picked up by the state; grants exceeding $200 million through 2016 support both the equipment and users of Blue Waters from across the globe. Dayandnight,intheboundary-lessreachesofcyberspace, researchers run powerful calculations to mimic tornadoes and earthquakes, to study proteins, and to simulate the evolution of the cosmos. Big questions require big data. Blue Waters, a product of Cray Inc., after IBM dropped out in 2011, at its peak can make more than thirteen quadrillion calculations per second. That’s thirteen followed by fifteen zeroes. The building and program belong to the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, which began in 1986 with a little Cray computer wired into one floor of a campus building on Springfield Avenue. NCSA, including Blue Waters, exemplifies the extraordinary strength of the campus to actualize big ideas in computer science, engineering, and genomics; to gather resources in the form of state, national, and private money; to create functional, durable, and sometimes beautiful work spaces— teaching and research buildings—and to locate these spaces according to a plan. In this case, NPCF is one block from the northernmost edge of the campus’s Research Park, itself a product of clever partnerships. NPCF represents the leading edge of a campus that was born 150 years ago into poverty in a single building between the towns of Champaign and Urbana. Once the thick blanket 2 —— Chapter 1 —— Isabel Bevier visited the campus before joining the faculty in 1900 and remarked on the openness of the space where the adolescent University of Illinois was growing. “I thought I had never seen so flat and so muddy a place: no trees, no hills, no boundaries of any kind. This lack of boundaries, physical and mental . . . opened up a whole new world to me.” Three decades later, U of I architect T. E. O’Donnell called the prairie the University’s heritage, “a great sweep of open [space] which fairly invited growth and development and a natural fertility of soil which in time has grown our beautiful campus setting.” That campus’s first (and only) building, disparaged as “The Elephant,” was nearly 2.5 miles northeast from where Blue Waters is housed today and illustrates several thrusts that have driven campus growth and development since 1867, namely that the campus has grown from north to south, that the campus was planned, and that the planning was purposeful and event driven. These three thrusts—or themes—are woven through An Illini Place and can help make sense of a campus with hundreds of buildings erected over fifteen decades on hundreds of acres. Chapters 2 through 6 present key features of planning , building, and landscaping the campus chronologically from 1867 to 2015. Each is set in the context of the economic climate and ambition of leaders of the time. The goal of An Illini Place is to try to answer one question : Why does the campus look as it does? Even the earliest U of I campus could be seen by some as growing randomly, but it was not. Its first map in 1871 sectioned the campus into four parts, creating a rudimentary plan. Soon the siting of a major new building, University Hall, shifted the campus south. And this southward push, clearly evident on nearly ninety campus plans since that first one, is obvious. Campus growth, then, is seen as inexorable, relentless, uneven, and mostly from north to south. Here’s an example: of tall prairie grasses and flowers linking the two towns was broken and its treasure—rich soil, called loess—a gift of the glaciers—that anchors the region’s...


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