Gehry at MIT | icon 014 | July/August 2004

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photo; Andy Ryan photo: Andy Ryan

words Lee Cheshire

Already dubbed the geek palace by Wired magazine, Frank Gehry’s research building for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened in May.

The exterior is restrained compared to Gehry’s full-blown recent work: there are few overtly sculptural additions and titanium is used sparingly. Instead it consists of rectangular terracotta walls dotted with small windows, from which irregular silver and white sections break out, almost as if they are falling from the building.

It replaces the ramshackle Building 20, a much loved temporary-turned-permanent structure that had acquired a near-mythical reputation as a centre for ground-breaking research into, for instance, Chomskian linguistics, Bose headphones and the world’s first computer game.

The new building, officially called the Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences, is named after the founder of a microchip manufacturer who also donated much of the funding for the project. It occupies a three-acre site on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The centre’s two nine-storey towers will house laboratories and offices for PhD students and staff, including Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the world-wide web, and Robert Morris, who released the first internet-based computer virus. Underneath there is a parking garage.

MIT says it chose Gehry for the project because his creatively messy offices reflected their own laboratories. Gehry allowed the building’s eventual residents to contribute to the design: a decision that reportedly led to a conflict between the architect’s radicalism and the more prosaic concerns of the researchers. For example, the slanted walls make it difficult to pack in computers and desks.

Whereas Building 20 was a maze of badly-lit corridors, the Stata Center stresses communal areas: an attempt perhaps to force the computer nerds into social interaction. Laboratory spaces are arranged into neighbourhoods around two-storey open spaces, with double-height lounges. An internal street runs the length of the building, and there is a central “town square”, with seminar rooms, a cafe, and a pub.

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