A building for learning at MIT

by Jay Cross on January 13, 2009

Reading the New York Times about the new ways MIT is teaching physics (previous post), this headline caught my eye:

M.I.T. Sues Frank Gehry, Citing Flaws in Center He Designed

Whoa! Researching Informal Learning, I interviewed MIT’s Chief Architect, Bill Mitchell, about this very building. Here’s an excerpt about the Stata Center from Chapter Four, Emergence.

Creating Learning Spaces at MIT

Buildings at MIT must support learning communities. Social space (cafeterias, nooks, atriums, and other public spaces) are much in demand. In fact, demand is high and getting higher for informal, multi-purpose spaces. Demand for private offices and cubicles is dropping. 

An effective learning space combines push and pull. The push is to create fringe spaces where disciplines overlap; this is a prerequisite of innovation. The pull is the portability that goes with a wi-fi connection. You used to meet in an office surrounded by your books, your files, and your phone. That’s no longer necessary. 

Now this seems like a no-brainer, but it’s hard to do. For one thing, you must fight obsolete metrics. A traditional measure is the “net-to-gross ratio,” the proportion of the building that’s productive. The problem is that social space is defined as unproductive. That’s crazy. The most unproductive space you can find is an empty office, where nothing is going on. 

Another vestigial metric is the “surface to volume ratio.” Less is more, unless you care about people, who want windows, corners, nooks, and other things that create more surface, not less. 

Many have compared MIT’s old Building 20 to the Media Lab. Building 20 was totally informal, the ultimate in flexibility. By contrast, the Media Lab is quite formal, in a way that deters collaboration. Bill Mitchell, Chief Architect at MIT,  notes that people forget that Building 20 was also cold, rat-infested, falling apart, and loaded with asbestos.

An open plan floor space is flexible. It physically breaks down the walls and barriers, replacing them with undefined boundaries. You can see what others are up to; their work becomes transparent, enabling people to interact. Not everyone likes the idea. As Tom Davenport said, they want their privacy. They see open plan architecture as social engineering, and they have a point. Most find that they like openness once they become accustomed to it. It takes courage to fight for the new, but the results are worth it. In the new data center, robots are running around, you see things going on, it’s an exciting space. 

You need to build support from the bottom up. Frank Gehry’s approach to building MIT’s Ray and Maria Stata Center was exemplary. The Center is home to engineering and computer science faculty. Gehry began by engaging the community. They interacted. He’d put a model on the table. No, that wasn’t it. He created another prototype. This was important to gain commitment; he put physical things out there. This fostered more discussion and more mutual understanding. He didn’t fear the tension; he welcomed it as a means of making progress.

Of course, highly charged atmospheres can create misunderstandings. Gehry challenged the faculty to rethink their conception of the relationship of offices and workspace. He suggested they think of a village of orangutans. At night they sleep apart, way up in the trees. In daylight, they form a community on the ground. Maybe the new MIT building should work like an orangutan village. The faculty complained to Bill Mitchell, “He called us orangutans.”  

I visited the Stata Center a couple of years ago to see if it was working. Students in conversation filled the weird nooks and crannies. Looked like a learning space to me.



The piece in the Times says:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has sued the architect Frank Gehry and a construction company, claiming that “design and construction failures” in the institute’s $300 million Stata Center resulted in pervasive leaks, cracks and drainage problems that have required costly repairs.

The center, which features angular sections that appear to be falling on top of one another, opened to great acclaim in the spring of 2004. Mr. Gehry once said that it “looks like a party of drunken robots got together to celebrate.”

Leaks? Mold? BFD.

“It is a joy to work in this building,” said Rodney Brooks, a professor of robotics, “and I know that many of its occupants feel the same as I do about it. We asked Frank to give us a building that fostered communication, and he delivered.”

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