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The Making Of Mit's New Media Lab Complex

A Conference with the Creators


On Saturday March 6, the School of Architecture + Planning hosted a conference to celebrate the opening of the new Media Lab Complex, designed by Fumihiko Maki in association with Leers Weinzapfel of Boston. Maki and members of his design and construction teams convened to discuss the conception and design of the building, along with leaders of the Media Lab and Dean Adèle Naudé Santos, in front of an overflow crowd of about 400. Below, some of the information that emerged from that event:

MIT knew from the get-go that they wanted Maki to design the building. There was no competition, no string of interviews. Bill Mitchell, who was dean of SA+P at the time and acting as architectural advisor to MIT president Charles Vest, went directly to Maki and asked if he’d do it – perhaps, Maki surmised, because the site was so tight and the vision so large they figured only a Japanese designer would be able to manage it.

Whatever the reason for it, the commission had a great roundness for Maki: as a graduate student at Harvard in 1953, he said, he attended a roof-top reception to celebrate the opening of 100 Memorial Drive and was dazzled by the skyline view; finally, now 50 years later, to design a nearby building that would itself command that view was a great opportunity for him.

Maki’s first meeting about the project at MIT took place in 1998 with Mitchell and Nicholas Negroponte, then director of the Media Lab. The challenge, Maki recalled, was ‘not to deliver what is known’. Whereas most MIT labs were closed and secret, this was to be transparent and playful; the maximum amount of enclosure allowed, according to Negroponte, would be floor-to-ceiling glass and, emphatically, there would be no curtains.

The building was to abound with opportunities for social interaction, in order to foster a vital cross-disciplinary community, and was to operate like a very big house or a very small city, a collective home. Which explains the unusual allocation of space in the building – only 53% of the space is assignable; the rest, nearly half of the building, is designated as shared space.

Another dictate was that the building be designed around human needs rather than technology. The existing Media Lab building had minimal smoked glass windows because the computer screens of the day required a relatively dark environment in order to be seen, a need that no longer needs to be accommodated. But human needs in a building are less subject to change than technological needs.

Mitchell talked about the phenomenon of a ‘found object’ finding its way into the design process, nudging the design in a certain direction. In this case, the found object was The Cube in the existing I.M. Pei building. But Maki referred to another found object – the student-made mezzanines in the MIT architecture department of the 1970s, a lively complex of joyously crude ad hoc structures. Maki said he aimed for a similar scenario, but elegant, without the ‘slum-like quality’ of those grass-roots rabbit warrens.

As prescribed by Negroponte, the final program for the building, rather than the customary phonebook-sized tome, was limited to a single sheet of 81/2” x 11” paper, simply listing the allocations of square footage for the building’s basic functions – research; communication and sponsor relations; event/dining/café; and building support. It was, said Gary Kamemoto, director of international projects at Maki’s firm, a very enlightened program from a very enlightened client.

In the original design, the laboratories were named for the planets because none of the space was yet assigned; a very good move, said Kamemoto, because that helped hold down the number of cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, the number of immediate stakeholders. The crown of the building was developed to give the building an iconic profile – in a nod to Negroponte’s Greek roots, they thought of it as the Acropolis – and the base, the streetscape, was to be more transparent than any other MIT building. The view, filtered through the fritted glass, would have a pointillist feel, like a Seurat painting. And the only colors in the building – the red, blue and yellow stairs – were drawn from Mondrian.

At one point, during a design meeting, Negroponte arrived from a previous meeting in Frank Gehry’s Stata Center and said to Maki, ‘You know what the most important thing about this building is? The most important thing is that it has to be better than Frank’s building’. After thinking a moment, Maki responded that Frank’s building would be playful on the outside and serious on the inside; the Media Lab building would be serious on the outside and playful on the inside. Later, he used a similar notion in comparing the new building to the existing I.M. Pei building; it’s as if you reached inside the Pei building and pulled it inside out, he said, the way you’d turn a sock inside out.

When the building was in design, LEEDS standards hadn’t yet been developed but Kamemoto said that if they had been in place at the time he felt sure the building would have been certified at least in part because Cambridge had very strict energy regulations that became still more strict during the design phase; the big issue was all that glass, an issue that was cleverly solved with the aluminum screens and fritted glass.

The construction of the building was a major challenge. Virtually every element in the building was custom designed, and some were manufactured and assembled in different countries, so there was no way to predict how everything would fit together, especially given the intricacy and finesse required to deal with precision 1/16” tolerances.

In the Japanese tradition, Maki worked with contractors and subcontractors during design to ensure constructability and many full-scale models of details were built to do performance testing, the team of six subcontractors all working together to learn how best to sequence the work and how to work together to achieve the desired results. (The desired results, according to MIT President Susan Hockfield, were simple: This building cannot leak.)

Ultimately, a 10’x10’x10’ full-scale model was constructed of all the components – it didn’t model any actual part of the building but included all the details that would be encountered in the entire structure. It was like a warm-up before the Big Game, said Alan Steinberg, project executive for the general contractor, BOND. Everyone, he said, at all levels of the effort, took great pride in what they were doing and triumphantly brought the building in on time and under budget. (A remarkable achievement, quipped Santos, that will likely never happen again.) The whole process was so expertly managed that one audience member suggested that the process of design and construction might serve as a model for collaborations of all kinds.

The result, according to Mitch Resnick, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group, is exactly what he’d hoped for: the same playful, kindergarten-like workspace his group had had in The Cube. And according to Tod Machover, head of the Hyperinstruments/Opera of the Future Group, is more radical than he’d imagined. There’s never a straight line of access from one place to another, he said. It encourages serendipity and always makes you think. It is an intriguing, exhuberant space and it will be a challenge to figure out how to make maximum use of all its opportunities.

According to Dean Santos, the result is also a great delight. As she noted about the crowds at the open house the preceding day: Everyone was smiling.