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The $300m fixer-upper

It is a building all about the future, but in Frank Gehry's whimsical $300 million Stata Center at MIT an old-fashioned X marks the spot. The spot, that is, where the place still leaks when it rains.

At one point there were 38 of these Xs, marked in yellow tape, all around the building. Rodney Brooks, director of CSAIL (for MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), says all but two of the peskiest leaks have been fixed. Leak number 2 is just outside his lab; Leak 24 is around the corner.

Opened in May, the 1,000 or so people who work in the Stata are settling in. It is a jumble of a place, filled with walls that tilt like stacked building blocks. I like the Stata because it dares to be different. But like all new buildings, there are bugs to be worked out. That goes double for a building this complex.

The leaks are a product of the unconventional design where walls and roofs collide at radical angles. (Check out a spreadsheet on the leaks at: http://tig.csail.mit.edu/buildingstatus.html.) But there is more work to be done in this $300 million fixer-upper. Even Gehry concedes the Kiva, a chapel-like seminar room, is a ''mistake" that needs work. The walls and the floors seem to slope, creating a disorienting fun house effect. The day-care center, worried about evidence of rats, closed its handsome playground for 10 days this month to make changes. In August, a fire alarm triggered the sprinklers, creating a huge flood. And in the most high-tech of buildings, you often can't use your cellphone because of all the steel used in the construction.

Most of the problems can be fixed, given enough time and money. (Joke making its way around the Internet: First you pay millions to erect a Gehry building, then you spend millions to stop it from leaking.) The real test of the Stata will come over time. What do its inhabitants think?

Kathleen Richardson, a visiting social anthropologist from the University of Cambridge who studies scientists and their environments, surveyed about 100 of her fellow researchers at the Stata. Her findings: People liked the natural light, but worried the open floor plans compromised their privacy and security. Already, she says, there is a growing ''hermeticism" in the building where people are papering over or frosting their windows.

The Stata's two most famous residents -- Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Noam Chomsky, the famed linguist and anti-establishment activist -- exemplify the schism inside the building.

''I love it," says Berners-Lee, who worked for years in the dreary Tech Square building with so many of the other CSAIL researchers. It is the simple stuff he appreciates: ''I can open my window!"

Chomsky, on the other hand, spent decades in the beloved Building 20, MIT's ''Magical Incubator." He would go back in a minute. In Chomsky's eighth-floor office, the walls slant in. ''If you look in the corner, you get vertigo," he says.

''The first time he came in, he almost passed out," says his assistant, Bev Stohl, who has loaded the office with plants to minimize the effect.

Chomsky finds the space not very usable. ''It is hard to get a blackboard up," he says. Responds Brooks, the CSAIL director: ''He hates the US government, too. He hates this country. Have you ever read anything he has written?"

Gehry, the world's most famous architect, is concerned about Chomsky's unhappiness, but not surprised, either. He knew Chomsky would miss feeding the squirrels as he did from the window of his old office. ''I am a big Chomsky fan," says Gehry, ''and I will come to Boston to fix it in a minute."

In the meantime, Chomsky can always go downstairs and feed the rats outside the day-care center.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at bailey@globe.com. or at 617-929-2902.

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