MIT Reboots Media Lab Project

The tech school went back to the drawing board for the expansion of its Media Lab, and Fumihiko Maki's new design is a minimalist masterpiece

Mothballed in the aftermath of the dot-com collapse, the expansion of MIT’s Media Lab, designed by Fumihiko Maki, has been reconfigured and relaunched. The revised 163,000-square-foot scheme of labs, studios, offices, and meeting space is a scaled-back version of Maki’s Modernist design from the late 1990s. Groundbreaking for the $120 million, six-story building is slated for spring 2007.

Unrealized during MIT’s recent spate of marquee projects, the Media Center project had to be resold to decision makers as a space that would benefit numerous departments and the greater campus community, according to Adele Naude Santos, dean of MIT’s school of architecture and planning. “There’s a larger mission than serving one entity,” she says. During the go-go ’90s, the Media Lab, avatar of the so-called new economy’s melding of digital media, advanced design, and marketing, proposed funding the building itself through mostly corporate donations. As the tech bust proved, Santos explains, “that was not a tenable position.” MIT wound up investing in the project along with corporate and private donors.

Maki’s minimalist steel, glass, and aluminum design includes a double curtain wall and external aluminum screens. The light-filled interior features open floor plans, overlapping spaces, and several large atria. An extensive basement level was eliminated from the original design and the building’s mechanical systems and other details are being updated, according to Santos.

The new building will connect to the Media Lab’s current home, the Wiesner Building, designed by I.M. Pei and completed in 1984. The combined structures will accommodate the Media Lab, the List Visual Arts Center, the architecture and planning department’s visual arts program, and the MIT program in comparative media studies. The new building will also house the Okawa Center for Future Children and the LEGO Learning Lab.

That the plans could be dusted off relatively easily is a testament to the durability of Maki’s design, according to Santos.

“He does things with extraordinary elegance and clarity and he’s incredibly efficient,” adds William Mitchell, professor of architecture and media arts and sciences and former dean of architecture and planning. “He manages to get a lot of program onto a tight urban site.”

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