It looks like a large-scale sculpture, in which leaning steel towers are fused with elements that resemble brick warehouse buildings, a bright yellow kiva, crushed soda cans, and a blindingly silver beached whale with a smokestack in its center. This spring, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory moved into a new building – but not just any new building. We moved into the $300 million Ray and Maria Stata Center, created by the often controversial postmodern architect Frank Gehry.
What are a bunch of researchers who pride themselves on rock-solid research, journal publications, and startup companies like Akamai and Peppercoin – all based on deep mathematics and solid value propositions – doing in a building that looks all flair? Some of us are not at all sure. But I view this as a wonderful experiment: make everyone just a little uncomfortable and see what their squirmings lead to.
The first things that surprise people when they walk into the Stata Center are the dazzling amount of light and the confusion between inside and outside. Exterior shapes and surface materials cut through glass ceilings and walls and suddenly appear inside as well. Glass is everywhere – two floors below you or four floors above you – and bright primary colors on the walls reflect light, light, and more light.
Another thing that surprises people is that it’s hard to tell whether the building is finished. Many of the walls are made from plywood bolted to rough metal frames, which extend above head height with no covering. Rough concrete columns and stairways here and there make it feel as if there is still more construction to be done. But the building is, in fact, finished.
Frank Gehry took our desires for flexible space very literally. And he was also inspired by the stories of Building 20, which formerly occupied the Stata Center site. Building 20 was constructed in 1943 for the Radiation Laboratory, which conducted top-secret wartime development work on radar.
Later, it housed generations of laboratories and academic departments – among them the Research Laboratory for Electronics and Noam Chomsky’s linguistics department (Chomsky has an office in the new building, too, high above us in the Dreyfoos tower). Building 20 was so temporary in nature that its occupants felt no inhibition whatsoever about taking up hammer and saw to remodel their individual research spaces as needed.