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EmTech: A Legendary MIT Building’s Lessons on Innovation

A shoddily constructed building meant to be temporary survived for 55 years because some of MIT’s most significant postwar research happened there. What does that tell us about what architecture should do?
September 23, 2014

MIT’s old Building 20 was ugly and slapdash and meant to just last through World War II—which is why it was made out of wood even though that broke the fire code. Yet it stayed up until 1998 because it became an ideas factory. Radar was perfected there. The science of modern linguistics took shape there under Noam Chomsky. It housed labs in nuclear science, cosmic rays, and food technology. Control terminals used by the Tech Model Railroad Club became the computers on which early hackers tinkered in the early 1960s.

What was the secret of Building 20? For one thing, its very ungainliness reduced the risk that would otherwise have come with trying something new. No one cared if a bunch of researchers knocked down a wall when they needed more room for a project. Also there was the fact that no one department owned it: it was multidisciplinary, and its tiny offices made it likely that people would get out into the long corridors and mix, sharing ideas. “Building 20 was a fantastic environment,” Chomsky recalled in 2011. “It looked like it was going to fall apart. There were no amenities, the plumbing was visible, and the windows looked like they were going to fall out. But it was extremely interactive.”

MIT Technology Review editor-in-chief and publisher Jason Pontin used the story of Building 20 this morning as the prologue to the annual EmTech conference at MIT, which runs through tomorrow. (We’ll be posting stories from the event throughout this week.) Though the building is now long gone, it reminds us of ways very big problems often get solved—with collaborations from many disciplines and a willingness to break some rules.

For more about Building 20, check out a book and BBC TV series called How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. This 1998 story in the New York Times captured why researchers so loved working there. One of them, Jerome Lettvin, wrote this elegy.

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