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A walk along most hallways of MIT’s original buildings yields only occasional glimpses into laboratories hidden behind wooden doors and flyer-­covered walls. But the new Media Lab Complex, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki, offers all who venture past the corner of Ames and Amherst streets a tantalizing view inside.

Originally designed in the 1990s (construction was delayed when funding fell through in 2002), the new building is truly spectacular. In designing it, Maki took inspiration from the Media Lab’s founding vision as a place for collaborative creativity. Its motif came from the Cube, a two-story lab in the Wiesner Building, the Media Lab’s original home next door. A big, wide-open space with offices surrounding it on the ground and mezzanine levels, the Cube has proved to be a perfect space for working collaboratively.

Accordingly, Maki designed most of the labs in the new building to occupy two floors and surrounded them with offices. He also staggered the labs vertically so that the upper level of one shares a floor with the first level of another; each one has common space with two others. The floor levels of the new Media Lab Complex are also carefully matched to those of the adjoining Wiesner Building, further promoting interconnection.

The new building’s transparency contributes still more to that collaborative ethic. Most of the interior walls are glass, affording views in all directions, so you see people working all around you. You also see the products of their work–pieces of cars, robots, all sorts of imponderable things. It’s a very exciting atmosphere: colorful, spirited, and incredibly joyful.

Because the building is also transparent from the street, all that joy and spirit is revealed to the outside world as well. No other MIT space so invites you to read the life of the building. And it was very cleverly done. For energy reasons, local codes allow only 50 percent transparency, so Maki chose to filter the light through elegant aluminum screens. Where there are no screens, the glass itself is printed with a subtle pattern of translucent dots. At night the whole building glows.

Three layers define the building. The ground floor, with its soaring atrium, includes three gallery spaces that provide a venue for exhibits, something the School of Architecture and Planning has never had before.

The second layer, levels 2 through 5, hosts the Media Lab, with labs and lounges gathered around a third-floor atrium at the very heart of the building. The atrium, which offers dramatic views to the entry level, provides a wonderful space for displaying Media Lab inventions.

The third level–the top floor–includes a roof terrace with stunning views of the river and the Boston skyline. For the first time, the School of Architecture and Planning has a place where everyone can gather.

You get a wonderful sense of pro­gression as you rise through the building. The expanse reveals itself first through the enormously tall first-floor atrium. Then gently pitched stairs take you slowly from level to level, giving you leisurely views of everything happening around you. Or you can rise more quickly through the building in its glass elevators and survey the labs as you glide past.

The complex houses a range of research and teaching programs that will benefit from daily interaction. In addition to the Media Lab and its many research groups, it is home to the Scheller Teacher Education Program from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and it hosts the School of Architecture and Planning’s new Program in Art, Culture and Technology, which offers undergraduate courses, a graduate program, and research in creative practices and creative cultural engagement. These programs, and the school as a whole, will benefit hugely from their increased visibility on campus.

And viewed from off campus, the Maki building enhances MIT’s profile. From Boston, you can see the new building–modern and forward-looking–on the Cambridge skyline. In the same glance you can also see the MIT dome and all it represents about our rich tradition and legacy. The two of them together make a strong statement about MIT and about the place of the School of Architecture and Planning within it.

Professor of architecture and urban planning Adèle Naudé Santos, pictured here in the Media Lab Complex, is dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. For a video tour of the new space, visit technologyreview.com/medialabtour.

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Credit: Judith M. Daniels/SA+P
Video by Melanie Gonick, Time-lapse photography: Guy Hoffman, Still images: Andy Ryan, Music: ‘Flora’ by Tod Machover

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