Does Gehry's Stata Center Really Work?

Three years after it opened to much fanfare, how is the infamous MIT building holding up?

When Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT opened three years ago, it got a lot of press, especially for its novel appearance. I wrote at the time: “It looks as if it’s about to collapse. Columns tilt at scary angles. Walls teeter, swerve, and collide in random curves and angles. Materials change wherever you look: brick, mirror-surface steel, brushed aluminum, brightly colored paint, corrugated metal. Everything looks improvised, as if thrown up at the last moment.” The Stata was even pictured in a Doonsbury comic strip, where a character calls it “pretty cool.”

Then everybody forgot about it and moved on. There were fresher shocks to delight us. But the Stata, like any building, is more than a visual show. It’s also a set of interior spaces where people study, play, socialize, and run experiments. The spaces either work or they don’t. You can’t make that judgment until a building has been around for a while.

So let’s ask that simple question. Does the Stata work? Or is it merely an act of self-expression? Is it architectural sculpture? Or is it—to use a word that now sounds quaint—functional? What were its purposes, anyway?

The biggest goal for the project was to get MIT scientists—and that includes students—to meet one another. Too often, it was felt, they were holed up in isolated labs, apartments, and classrooms. Says Gehry: “The main problem I was given was that there are seven separate departments that never talk to each other. [But] when they talk to each other, if they get together, they synergize and and make things happen, and it’s gangbusters.”

The Stata, thus, was to be a mixing chamber. People would make connections. They’d begin to feel like members of a community. Barriers between disciplines would fall. Great minds would meet, copulate, and spawn brilliant ideas.

Two groups were to be the primary beneficiaries: computer sciences and artificial intelligence. Most of the people in the Stata are in one of those fields, figuring out how thinking takes place and how it can be improved and communicated, whether in a brain, a computer, a network, or a robot. Smaller groups at Stata are linguists, philosophers, and biologists who study DNA.

After a month of wandering the Stata’s trackless and confusing floors (they are), and talking to its delighted inhabitants (they are), I’m ready to say: Yes, it does work. In the ways that count most, the Stata is a wonderful and astonishing building. Let’s list its virtues. From here on, every comment in quotation marks was made to me by a Stata professor, researcher, student, or staff member.

The Stata is a building with lots of problems, inhabited by guys who love to solve problems. The MIT scientists would have been bored by a conventional building. Gehry gave them a building that needs to be solved. The floor plans are at first a mess, as noted. As you hunt down the person you’re there to see, you feel like a rat looking for the cheese in a maze. Except for the ground floor “Student Street,” there isn’t—at first—any apparent order to the circulation.

But the scientists love the complexity. You just wander around till you get where you’re going. “You may run into people and projects you knew nothing of,” says one. Says another, joyful at the memory: “It took them a day to cut my furniture to fit the sloping and bending walls in my office.” That was a problem, and he found a solution. Another likens his office to living in a work by Richard Serra. These are guys who like challenges. They like having to figure things out. Life in the Stata can be a continual brain game. (Okay, it might not suit everyone.) “Nine out of 10 faculty would say they are really pleased,” notes one. “Everyone wants to say they’re unconventional.”

The Stata is fractal instead of linear. Three professors compared the floor plan to fractals. “We made a 3D graph,” says one, “of all the research groups we’d like to sit next to. We found that you couldn’t do that in only two dimensions.” Gehry’s plan, which everyone calls “neighborhoods,” gets as close to that ideal as possible.

A neighborhood is a cluster of private offices opening off a shared space that one staffer calls a “town green.” Usually the shared space is two stories high and often it’s skylit, so the neighbor connections work both horizontally and vertically.

Research at Stata is group focused, and the groups come in many sizes. There are, therefore, many possible orders of magnitude. You can define your research zone as a whole floor, or as two or three neighborhoods, or as just one neighborhood, or maybe as just your own office and a share of its town green. This is what makes Stata fractal, the way it breaks down in steps from large clusters to small, each one of which, at every scale, can be thought of as a centered whole.

“You can’t do that in a linear building, with rooms off a corridor,” says one person. Another sees the plan as metaphor: “For a lot of the deep issues in computer science here, linear analysis doesn’t work.”

Fractals are the Stata. No two places are exactly the same: “The lack of repetition animates the building.” Coffee and whiteboards seem to be everywhere, and people casually join discussions as they navigate their way through the plan: “You run into people you might not have seen in years. I get lost all the time.”

A voice of mild disagreement is that of Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political activist who is the Stata’s best-known inhabitant. Chomsky’s world isn’t fractal. It’s a conventional suite of offices. He says he never meets anyone by accident. He complains about his sloping wall, which means he can’t put bookshelves on it and can’t reach the sunshade in its window. He misses the squirrels that used to run around inside the walls of his old office. He says of the Stata, “I’m fine with it.” But he works mostly at home.

The Student Street is a great architectural space. It’s an indoor walkway that meanders through the Stata’s ground floor. It’s endlessly varied. Sometimes it’s narrow, sometimes wide, sometimes high, sometimes low. Sunlight falls from high windows. Walls angle in and out, often in bright colors.

The Street is like the high street in a British village. Everything seems to connect with it. In the morning, professors climb stairs from the underground garage, stop for a cappuccino, then stride the Street to their elevators (the Street, wisely, is the sole pedestrian way out of the garage). At five o’clock, tots pile out of the day-care center to meet their parents. Undergrads in gym shorts head for the health club and pool. Classes spill regularly from lecture halls and classrooms. Student advocates push petitions or memberships. Visitors stare at the life-size porcelain cow, enthroned atop a coffee shop, that MIT student hackers once, um, liberated from a suburban steakhouse. “There’s a random collection of tables where students flop and study. It’s also a place to promenade.” Students can plug in their laptops almost anywhere on the Street. “It’s full of nooks and crannies where people stop and talk.” The Street is a deliberate reinvention of MIT’s famed “Infinite Corridor,” the drab heart of the old campus. The Street is far better. And like any good public space, it’s open day and night.

The building will never be finished. Says Gehry: “I’m happy when the building is forgiving enough so you can do things to it without destroying it. Put a new light where you want, knock out a wall.” Says a Stata linguist: “Any kind of scientific work is always under construction, always still being built. When you publish a book or a paper it’s never finished, it’s just a step on the way to the next one.”

It occurred to Gehry long ago that his buildings looked more interesting while they were under construction than when they were finished. Ever since, he’s sought ways to give buildings that restless sense of something still happening. Nothing about the Stata feels finished. Since it opened, it’s been in a constant state of minor modification, as the researchers fit it to their needs. The architecture is a metaphor for the science: always an open question, always a work in progress.

Not everyone loves the Stata’s “unfinished” indoor materials, which are raw metal, glass, plywood, industrial lamps, exposed wires, and raw concrete. But they understand the motive, which is that Gehry wanted his building to feel like a warehouse, easy to change and rearrange.

The architecture recruits faculty. MIT’s then-president, Chuck Vest, egged on by the dean of architecture and planning, Bill Mitchell, announced another Stata mission as follows: “I believe that the buildings at this extraordinary university should be as diverse, forward thinking, and audacious as the community they serve. They should stand as a metaphor for the ingenuity at work inside them.”

As a principle, I regard this statement as moronic nonsense. It’s like saying Einstein should have worn a crazy hat to express the fact that his brain was thinking audacious things. But many of the scientists disagree with me. They want to be in a building that proclaims how special they are:

“It’s an icon for this age. It helps attract new faculty because it says we take risks.” “The notion was that MIT needed an icon other than the dome.” “It captures a sense of MIT’s inventiveness and playfulness.” “The building’s funny shape and bizarreness kind of matches up with the work we do. It looks as strange outside as the strange stuff going on inside” “This is world-changing research, and if the building looks like it’s leaping off the planet, so are we.”

There’s lots of wasted space. Another winning move is the amazing amount of unprogrammed space. An efficiency expert would call it a total waste. This is space that isn’t anyone’s turf. It’s everywhere. It’s the stuff of those “village greens” and generous elevator lounges. People grab it when they need it. A space may become the overflow site for some experiment. Or students may clutter it with a newly invented game, or an impromptu discussion or party. They eat and study anywhere and everywhere: “The undergraduates really mill in the building. Some of them walk in out of curiosity and end up working with us.”

Because so much space isn’t under anyone’s direct supervision, the Stata feels free and relaxed. And the openness means that its parts are visible to one another: “People can be seen to be working.” “You can see the building is alive. You can feel part of a community that is working hard. I used to have to go to a conference on the West Coast to find out what the guy next to me was working on.” “There’s connectivity. There are even windows in the fire stairs.”

The skin-to-floor ratio is huge. There’s a lot of exterior wall and roof in relation to the indoor floor area. The most efficient building, as any developer or architect knows, is the one with the lowest such ratio. But that depends on what you mean by efficiency. The more surface you have, the more windows and skylights you can get. Almost everywhere in this huge building, despite its wide floor plates, you feel in touch with the sky and sun.

It looks more like a car smashup than a building. From outside, the Stata doesn’t look like one thing, it looks like a pile of unrelated parts that somehow got compacted together, like a John Chamberlain wrecked-car sculpture. As a result, big as the building is, it doesn’t feel in the least controlling.

And in a move that reminds you of Charles Moore, Gehry scattered a bunch of brightly colored objects, looking like odd-shaped huts, across the building’s numerous roofs. They are conference rooms. The scientists call them by the pet names the architects gave them—the Kiva, the Nose, the Helmet, and so on. In the largest, the Kiva, a third to a half of all visitors (including Gehry) get dizzy from the free-form walls. Some people have adjusted, others not. But most still like the pavilions: “The playfulness animates the environment. It reminds you of the student hacking.”

The Stata has many faults that I’m ignoring, from early roof leaks (at least 50) to lack of acoustic privacy. But the faults pale next to the inventive virtues. I’ll let Gehry have the last word. He likens the Stata to democracy itself and, well, to rabbinical bickering: “There is a growing model of urbanism in America, in the world, and I optimistically believe this has something to do with democracy. There’s a pluralism and a collision of ideas, something almost Talmudic.”

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