The most thrilling moment of my MIT Stata Center visit during Media Day came when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Senior Research Scientist and Stata big-wig, presented his vision for the future of this very medium that you are reading, using, surfing right now. You see, without Sir Tim, you and I might not be sharing this information, or maybe not exactly in this same way, because he is the person who wrote the first internet browser-editor back in the dark age of 1990. According to him, websites, like Archinect, will become much more “semantic” in the years to come; more aware of the user's profile and more intelligent about what is actually in the data. For instance, a rather dumb example: you might put in your calendar application that you are traveling to Boston; your calendar application already knows that you like Frank Gehry or that you have visited his work in the past; it searches on places like Archinect for images of his buildings, and then tantalizes you with those. Maybe it even finds you a map to the Stata, but it makes all those connections without any of your intervention.
MIT is betting a lot of donor money that the Stata Center will speed-up innovations like the previous example, although no one is holding their breath. For the engineers and computer scientists that live here, the results will have to back-up the hypothesis. The premise is to take the Jeffersonian idea of the “academical village,” slam the pieces together, remove the overlapping parts to create communal spaces, and thread it with a long “student street.” The great ideas are supposed to emerge out of those communal spaces and the hard experimental research is supposed to happen in the major pieces, where the interior configuration is meant to be dismountable and flexible.
The Stata Center's main pieces are about twelve 120-foot towers and an assortment of adjoining small elements””about six or seven by my count””that accommodate lecture rooms, class rooms, and social spaces on the lower floors. The cluster packs around a public space on the fourth floor that spills out onto a raised outdoor plaza facing south. The whole center””one cannot call it a single building””houses the newly formed Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Linguistics Departments (yes, that is Noam Chomsky's department) and the Philosophy Department, as well as other offices and social spaces, like a café. It contains over 700,000 square feet.
The Stata is already receiving critical accolades, a routine that is now customary for all the Gehry blockbusters that have opened recently. It does deserve its share of critical acclaim. The subtraction of solid surfaces on the inside create piranesian effects of complex visual penetration from one space into another into another with walkways that stream all over the place. It reminds me a bit of Portman's Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. Sunlight pours through all kinds of crevasses bouncing off shiny surfaces outside and colorful walls inside. The communal spaces for the research teams connect from one floor to another. The offices seem very comfortable. There are tons of operable windows.
To those that think every Gehry place is the same: it's not. Of course, this place is unmistakably Gehry (to which he says: “one can't escape one's own limitations”). However, unlike other Gehry projects, this one is much more representational. The building mass literally is a sculptural version of a village. Gehry calls it a “still life,” or “like a Morandi.” Gehry is right to point out that the monumentality of the enormous program given by MIT had to be broken apart to insert it into the urban fabric. The collage of materials outside alludes to an imaginary time-lapsed assemblage of buildings or an organic city of different pieces. The brick towers pile into the structure as if they had been sucked in from the bland bio-tech buildings that are around. These brick elements are a baseline for the other parts to dance around. Their windows are recessed while the others pop out. Gehry claims that the cluster can also be expanded easily because the variety will easily welcome new pieces. This was a claim that Thomas Jefferson made, and made more credibly than Gehry, about the University of Virginia.
While there is a great diversity of uses inside the complex, there is even more diversity portrayed by the outside. We will have to debate how we feel about this return to the illusionistic in architecture. Behind MIT's desire for this innovation incubator there is a conflicting will: to symbolically retain its place at the frontier of the future and simultaneously design the Jeffersonian past that it does not have.
- by Javier Arbona , Discuss
I research and write about architecture, space, and culture. My dissertation at Berkeley Geography (in progress) is on California's post-military landscapes and parks as mediums of remembering and policing national identity. I am a Lecturer at California College of the Arts in San Francisco ...