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Blurred Boundaries

The boundary between work and play is blurred in the Stata Center.

Members of the community all know that while every MIT building has a number, not every building is referred to by its number. Some are referred to only by name. Knowing which is which is part of MIT-speak. The number/name dichotomy is not arbitrary. Here is the principle: if the building is work, wholly work, and nothing but work, it rates a number. If it is tainted by play, then names will have to do. That is why the dormitories are all called by name and not by number. And that is why fluent MIT-speakers will always refer to Building 32 as the Stata Center. It is a place for work and play.

Let me give you an example. My longtime friend and colleague Ken Stevens, ScD ‘52, and I work in my office in the Stata Center every Wednesday morning. Ken comes to my office because it is a sanctuary in the midst of modernity, much quieter than his. We take an unusual kind of break during our three-hour work sessions: we look out of my seventh-floor window and watch toddlers cavorting in the day-care center playground below. It is a wonderful respite for us. Just imagine what it must mean to Rae Langton, a member of the philosophy faculty, who can catch sight of her child in the playground during the course of her workday. She once told me, “This is like nothing I’ve ever seen in any academic building anywhere. I can’t tell you what it means to have my child so close while I’m at work.” (During a chance encounter in the Stata Center’s underground parking lot, I told this story to Bill Mitchell, formerly dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and currently head of the media arts and sciences program. His face lit up. “That’s what architecture is about,” he said.)

It is not just the toddlers who play. Down the hall from me is Eric Feron’s helicopter laboratory, part of the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems. Eric and his students fly miniature remote-controlled helicopters inside the Stata Center–in a student lounge and in their two-story-high lab space (web.mit.edu/valenti/ResTrans). There is no danger: the blades are made of paper. If they hit something, they crumple.

If I had to describe the building in three words or fewer, I would say, height and light. Light and height are everywhere. Huge multistory windows blur the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. This was surely the architect’s intention. But with all those windows, what are you going to look at? The building one street over? Frank Gehry designed a building that is constantly manufacturing its own landscape. Most of the Stata Center windows look inside the building, not out. They will open onto the next floor down, often through a glass ceiling over a laboratory, or across an open atrium to a conference room. If they open to the outside, it’s on the silver surface of the “nose,” the home of a robotics research laboratory, or on a bright expanse of yellow skin covering part of an outer wall amid clustered facades of red brick.

There is a tiny conference room at one end of the seventh floor. From the outside you can see that this room has its clones above and below it. The room comes to a triangular point. When I step into it, I feel as if I am in a glass bubble floating above Vassar Street. It is like stepping onto a space station. The students come to this space to use the blackboards. I come here to pretend I’m Han Solo reconnoitering. The Stata Center is filled with such spaces.

The space station at the end of my corridor and the children playing seven stories down outside my window and the graduate students flying helicopters just outside my office all add up to fun. It is fun having an office here. And that, I think, is the secret of the building. If you don’t have fun doing science and engineering, then you probably shouldn’t be doing them. For me the Stata Center is a constant reminder of that.

Samuel Jay Keyser HM, emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy, is currently special assistant to the chancellor at MIT. He is a member of the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, the New Liberty Jazz Band, and the Dave Whitney Swing Orchestra. His recently published children’s book, The Pond God and other Stories, received a Lee Bennett Hopkins honor award in 2004.

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