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December 17, 2009

Building time at MIT.

I could do my job with a typewriter and a bench (and the bench is optional), which is why I’d be lost in a workspace described as: “housing a gigabit fiber-optic plant connecting a heterogeneous computer network, ranging from fine-grained, embedded processors to supercomputers. There are 3D printing prototyping resources, and laboratories for DNA labeling, new sensors, micro-encapsulation, quantum computing and perceptual studies.”

I’m betting that one of those things is MIT-speak for a typewriter, but if ever there were a building packed with gizmos I don’t understand, it would be the space described above. Namely, the newly expanded Media Lab at MIT, which I checked out last Saturday on a 22-degree, “I’m a genius for relocating to California” morning. 

The recently completed Media Lab expansion at MIT.

Designed by architect Fumihiko Maki, the exterior of the MIT Media Lab expansion is spot-on with its balanced proportions, sense of scale, use of materials and appreciation for setting. There’s a satisfying rhythm in the repetition of rectangles and squares, creating a composition that’s elegant and sophisticated. Parts of the building are veiled in metal screens that filter light for a more comfortable interior while providing a bit of privacy. These screens will also help maintain a uniform aesthetic after the occupants move in and MIT-ize their new spaces with robotic window blinds and convolution theorems taped to the glass. 

As pleasing as Maki’s work is, I’m wondering if it’s too perfect, like a mathematical proof that’s no longer challenged, it doesn’t make anyone think. Every detail of this building is so well resolved that there’s nothing left for us to do but admire it. And where’s the fun in that? I’m curious to hear how the Media Lab students and faculty like the space, especially since they’re moving from the somewhat cavernous Weisner Building, designed by MIT alumnus (class of 1940) I.M. Pei. The Weisner, with its rounded corners and white tiled exterior, has been compared to an inside-out bathroom (earning it the nickname “Pei Toilet”), and as the target of an MIT “hack” (prank), its gridded exterior was transformed into a Scrabble game. (The next time you play, keep “Pei” in mind for an easy five points.)

The Weisner Building (which I.M. Pei described as “a space-making object”) with the new expansion in the distance.

If Maki’s building doesn’t wake up your cranium, then Frank Gehry’s building is sure to give you a brain freeze. A few months ago, I was asked my opinion of MIT’s Stata Center and I clambered onto my soapbox and denounced the Disney-like cartoonish building ripped from the pages of a Dr. Seuss story with all the fury of someone who’d clearly never been to the building site. Shame on me. And shame on Mr. Gehry for not inviting me sooner. (Not that Mr. G and I are friends or anything. The fact that I mention him in almost everything I write these days is as baffling to me as it is to you.)

The Stata Center at MIT.

After spending time at the Stata Center, I still think it reeks of overreaching – both by the architect and the school – but there’s also something very special about it. It’s packed with surprises. They lurk around every corner. It’s the type of space where if I were an MIT student (all day long I’d biddy biddy bum), struggling with how to make two plus two equal five, a walk through the Stata might just help me generate the idea I’m looking for.

There are unexpected moments of beauty that made me stop and stare. And when I stepped outside and saw the Airstream-like orb that punches through the pavement, I literally gasped (although, that might have been from a blast of arctic air). Yes, it’s very carnival like, and I even photographed my distorted reflection as seen in the orb’s stainless steel siding, but isn’t the whole point of creative thinking to have fun? Think unsystematically? Tear down (or construct, in this case) walls?

The Stata Center, including the Airstream-like orb that extends into the interior space below the pavement.

I was enchanted. Sort of like a date-from-hell who turns into someone you’re actually interested in. This building has got something. In its kaleidoscopic configurations, I see a metaphor for how making random connections can lead to new ideas. We tend to think that places of order and balance (like Maki’s new building) are pleasing environments, but to MIT students, maybe Stata feels more comfortable – providing relief from the order they’ve imposed upon their lives.

What do you think about these (and other) buildings at MIT? Drop me a note in the comments field below.

Gwendolyn Horton


It is so refreshing to see some new concepts. It looks like if you want to do something new you need to take it a step up. Can anybody go and see those buildings?

As a student at MIT in the early 90s I slept in an Alvar Aalto dorm, ate in the Earo Saarinen student center, and worked in the I.M. Pei chemistry building. Infusing modern architecture into the everyday lives of young, hungry students has much to do with the institute's success at graduating individual-minded thinkers and doers. When your norm is the extraordinary, it really does change your world view.

Gwendolyn - About the Stata Center. I assume you are not aware that MIT is suing both Gehry and the construction company because the building leaks and the auditorium floods. And the patches and quick fixes are not working. The construction company states they contacted Gerhy about the roof design and were instructed to "Build as drawn." The central space was conceived as a town square where people could meet and exchange ideas, but the cold concrete material used and the echo producing ceiling have eliminated that. Students and Faculty complain that the sloping eaves over the doors are a hazard during bad weather, as mounds of snow slide off in a mini-avalanche endangering anyone caught below. For a building to be successful it must be safe, sound and meet the needs of the end users.

I feel elevated and enchanted by their beauties.

Reading Design Notes is always enlightening and entertaining. I like your style, Gwendolyn, especially your parenthetical reference to Tevya in this one.

Regarding the "value" of architecture that seems at first to jangle one's nerves, if the structure achieves its intended goals, then it works as architecture, whether inspired by Dr. Seuss or whomever. Meaning? Well, let me offer two examples.

Daniel Libeskind's addition to the Denver Art Museum: Although I haven't been inside (shame on me), friends in the museum world tell me the odd angles and jutting walls have created vertigo in visitors and badly bonked heads for some. Not to mention the difficulties curators encounter when trying to install art works in the galleries. This high-profile building seems to be at cross purposes to its intended goal -- a place to view and appreciate art.

Libeskind's new Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco: I can attest from personal experience that this Libeskind museum succeeds admirably in achieving its two-fold goals: (1) adding a slick, new angular structure to a brick-and-terra cotta historic facade, and (2) providing multi-functional space to exhibit various art forms without physically or psychologically harming visitors and staff.

From your reaction to the Stata Center, Gehry's building seems to do what it was designed to do. Bravo! And maybe the same will be true when MIT's new Media Lab is occupied and humming with creative energy. However, it looks, to me, a bit too ordered and regimented. But that's just me.

Thanks for the article. I look forward to visiting these buildings. Maybe you can include other campuses in the future. Here in the Bay Area, UC Berkeley has some interesting new buildings on campus (e.g., Starr Asian Library).

Geary's creations? You should have trusted your first instincts, they are ridiculous. On a gut level, they're garish and unpleasant. Not everything unconventional is wonderful. If the buildings in your photo did not have his name stamped on them, would you effuse quite so much?

To answer Petra's question, yes all of these buildings (as well as all of the campus except for the dorms) are open to the public.

As a current MIT student, I'm additionally aware of some of the quirks of these buildings. For example, the lecture halls in Stata have large closable skylights, which when open, allow the lighting in the rooms to change as clouds pass over.

Alvar Aalto's Baker dorm, and Steven Holl's Simmons dorm are also interesting, but not open to the public. The Eero Saarinen chapel is also very nice, and usually open.

Gwendolyn, Nice to read just a small bit full of the joy of life. Buildings, space, jest, delight... Never met you. Likely never will, but onward with your bright spirit. Thanks.

As a 1956 grad, I missed most of the fun. First some corrections. Saarinen did the Chapel and Kresge, but not Stratton Student Center. He was supposed to, but it fell through and Eduardo F. Catalano was the architect.

My daughter works for an architect in Cambridge (Ellenzweig), and we usually visit MIT's campus every time I visit. My favorite building is Holl's Simmons Dorm, but my second favorite is Ellenzweig's power station on Mass Ave. What did you think of Ellenzweig's Koch Cancer Research building next to Stata? I think Stata is fun although when I last visited, I could only access the first floor.

I now live in Princeton, and when my daughter visited a couple of months ago, we took a campus tour. We liked Gehry's Lewis Library, and Tod Williams' Dorm, but the building that surprised us the most was Whitman College designed by Demetri Porphyrios. Both my daughter and I are relentless modernist, but these building in collegiate gothic were great. Come to Princeton and see.

These concepts are totally amazing, especially the last one

Looking at the pictures the structural design of the building is so elegant and sophisticated.But i still want the safety first of the users.

Nice post! Thanks for sharing!

MIT has always been a holy place of engineers and scientists.Its great that new buildings are rising.

MIT has always been a holy place of engineers and scientists.Its great that new buildings are rising.

Love seeing unique buildings.

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