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The Idea Factory

Can Frank Gehry’s phantasmagoric architectural forms inspire innovation?

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.

Gehry endeavored to give us the same sort of flexible space, which we will mold and change over time to suit our purposes. Some people are fantastically happy with everything just as it is. Surprisingly (at least to me), others who have made a career out of tearing down old ideas and replacing them with avant-garde new ones are a little shocked by a confrontation with a physical space that they don’t quite understand.

Faculty members are responding in a variety of ways. One has in his office the same desk he was first assigned at MIT as a freshman 40 years ago. Another put a beautiful hardwood floor atop his raised floor and outfitted his office in the Italian Liberty style.

Graduate students have been even more aggressive in their responses. Some immediately painted glass walls near them to gain privacy. Others reveled in the open space and moved their desks next to each other so they could work in teams. The many lounges scattered throughout the building all seem well used, and students have created new semiprivate lounges in the middle of research spaces. Couches to sleep on day and night have appeared throughout the building – some hidden, others visible from three floors away.

Many faculty and students view the building as a perfect engineering challenge. New touch screens, tastefully encased in plywood boxes to blend in, have rapidly appeared near elevators so that visitors can look up their hosts or identify what seminars are in which strangely shaped rooms. If you have one of the latest cell phones in your pocket, maps and location data get automatically downloaded as you walk past one of these kiosks.

Some researchers have dispatched robots to wander the corridors and build perfect three-dimensional maps of the building’s interior. I’ve warned them to be careful showing their results at conferences: their audiences may think the curved and sloped walls and complete lack of 90-degree angles reflect errors in their software.

While all of us perpetually relish the chance to confront hard problems, to gain exposure to new ideas, and most of all, to generate those new ideas, Frank has given us a disturbing new challenge. He has given us a mind-bending new spatial environment. I’m pretty confident that the next generation of MIT students will love this challenge, and that they will turn it into fresh new approaches to research.

And I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

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