MIT Brains Get Media Lab to Handle Chaos, Meshing Ideas: Review

Media Lab
The interior view of the upper atrium at the addition to the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Architect Fumihiko Maki built bridges, elegant stairs and other gathering places to encourage the sharing of ideas. Photographer: Andy Ryan/MIT via Bloomberg

As I pondered a 12-legged robot in the new Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I marveled at how architect Fumihiko Maki, who creates buildings of elegant, serene dignity, accommodated the messy endeavors here.

As academic research goes, it doesn’t get more untidily free-form. I watched researchers with little finger extensions project data onto a screen and manipulate it. A video showed a man bounding along a sidewalk with scarily flexing poles attached at his feet and waist, an experimental exoskeleton intended to augment failed legs.

The savvy, 81-year-old Maki has taken MIT’s $90 million and methodically disciplined its sprawling idea factory while keeping all the experimentation on display.

Working with Maki & Associates director Gary Kamemoto and Boston architect Leers Weinzapfel, Maki has developed a versatile lab space by pushing the ceiling of half the work area up two stories and putting offices on mezzanines overlooking the action below. It all sits behind a gray-metal exterior layered with calming screens of metal rods.

As at MIT’s Stata Center -- the spectacular collision of brightly colored forms by Frank Gehry -- the architectural mission is to break through the old disciplinary boundaries because that’s where all the pressing questions are answered.

Glass-fronted labs offer views to each other across an atrium that runs up three levels, doglegs and then continues up to a top floor of gathering spaces. From many vantages you can see into three lab levels at once. Some are bathed in daylight filtered through the external screens.

3-D Puzzle

Maki laid out this six-floor, 163,000-square-foot 3-D puzzle invitingly, making it a pleasure to navigate via windowed elevators, glass-railed bridges or brightly colored stairs.

Curvy coffee-bar tables covered with laptops replace benches. Piled toolboxes and parts bins form partitions. “The emphasis here is on making things,” a graduate student said. “Then they’re critiqued, and we remake them.”

That’s partly because corporations (including Lego AS, Motorola Inc., and MasterCard Inc.) sponsor the lab’s work, and drop by often. Technologies developed here have been spun off into numerous products, among them the engine that powers the Guitar Hero computer game and the screen for the Amazon Kindle.

In the face of the sheer quantity of stuff, Maki shapes an environment that is oddly, quietly beautiful. As you look from one lab to another, vignettes perpetually re-form themselves, veiled by reflections off the many layers of glass: people conversing, equipment awaiting use, a sunbeam crawling across the floor.

His bridges, stairs and atrium let everyone find everyone else and let ideas find new homes by ricocheting around the building until someone sees a new connection.

Research Extremes

The Media Lab takes interdisciplinary research to extremes. The Biomechatronics lab that designs new-generation artificial limbs “attracts people with multidisciplinary backgrounds,” according to Madalyn Berns, another graduate student I met.

In the new labs, several teams share the same space. “You work with your own group, but just walking around you encounter people with multiple backgrounds that can speak on many different subjects,” Berns explained.

At the same time, there’s a major focus in the lab on the social-networking technologies that permit us to avoid physical human contact. Maki, anchored in the real rather than the virtual -- he has no Facebook page -- has reworked urban analogies to break into the ivory towers.

The doglegging atrium forms two town squares. The bridges are like airy sidewalks. Hang out in the exquisite cafe as you would in a neighborhood bar. The top floor, with its dining and meeting spaces -- and a panorama of the Boston skyline -- is like an agora.

(James S. Russell is Bloomberg’s U.S. architecture critic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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