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