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Monumental effort

MIT's Stata Center is a striking example of cutting-edge architecture. It is also late in completion, expensive, and a bit scaled-down.

CAMBRIDGE -- Even before the first arrivals move into their offices next Friday, the sprawling complex at 32 Vassar St. in Kendall Square seems destined to be the most talked-about address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT has piled its 21st century research dreams and ambitions onto the $285 million Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences. But the building will open more than three years behind schedule, cost nearly three times as much as initially planned, and contain only scattered areas wired with the futuristic technology promised by its wildly free-form architecture, studded with punched-out windows and tilting block towers.

Nearly everyone has an opinion about the dramatic structure, designed by Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry. ''When I saw the renderings, I thought, 'You've got to be kidding,' " said Cambridge Mayor Michael A. Sullivan. ''It looked like something my kids built and then took a hammer to. . . but now it's starting to grow on me."

Robert A. Brown, past president of the Boston Society of Architects, is a fan. ''It almost seems like the ideas are about to burst out of the building," he said.

The Stata Center, which will house about 1,000 research scientists, PhD students, and administrators, is the largest and most distinctive new MIT building of the past century. In many ways, the growth of the project over the past seven years has mirrored MIT's evolving vision for academic research in the new millennium. The project also reflects some of the grandiosity of the roaring 1990s, when it was conceived and launched with a roster of donors led by Ray Stata, founder of Analog Devices Inc., and his wife Maria; Microsoft Corp. cofounder Bill Gates; and Alexander Dreyfoos Jr., a photographic equipment entrepreneur and investor from West Palm Beach, Fla.

But the Stata Center will open its doors at a much less exuberant time, when the economy has weakened and a financially strapped MIT is cutting its budget by about $34 million this year and plans to pare $70 million in the fiscal year starting July 1. And the Stata Center's researchers will be working in a changing environment where cross-disciplinary ventures are a priority, corporate funding has been slashed, and academic labs are under constant pressure from sponsors to spin out new technologies that can be quickly commercialized.

''There's a real challenge in science right now," said Rodney A. Brooks, director of the Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, known as CSAIL, which will be the Stata Center's largest tenant. ''Funders want short-term results, and we don't argue with that. But we have to provide an environment for long-term deep thinking."

That new environment of twisting atria and natural light will provide research space and offices for CSAIL (pronounced see-sail), a recent combination of two separate MIT labs, along with a pair of other MIT units: the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. Its tenants include several academic luminaries, ranging from World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, to linguist and dissident Noam Chomsky, to Brooks himself, a robotics pioneer who starred in a 1997 documentary film that chronicled his work building autonomous robots that crawl like bugs.

The star cast extends to the architect. Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain, and the Experience Music Project in Seattle, embraces bold design visions. Officials at MIT, a school known for its eclectic architecture, have championed the provocative Stata Center design since the planning began.

''We didn't hire Frank Gehry to build a 400-foot-long, 70-foot-wide box," said Christopher J. Terman, the CSAIL associate director who chaired the client committee representing the labs in the Stata Center building project. ''If you hire Picasso to paint your portrait, you don't expect John Singer Sargent when you're done."

William J. Mitchell, architectural adviser to MIT's president, Charles M. Vest, helped to tap Gehry, a friend from Mitchell's days at UCLA, and to push his design vision into the building's interior.

Another goal of the center was to give MIT's famously uncommunicative faculty and researchers opportunities to bump into each other and strike up conversations. Every floor will feature a variety of inviting, comfortable common areas. ''The idea is to create a tight-knit community through social space that lends itself to unexpected encounters," Mitchell said. ''The last thing you want is people locked up in their individual offices."

While its labs will be working on advanced research, early plans to integrate leading-edge technology into the building itself -- including human-centric computing applications pioneered by the computer science lab's Project Oxygen -- have been scaled back.

''There will be experiments with technology in the building, but not as grandiose as we'd initially envisioned," said John Guttag, head of MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. ''While we'd hoped originally to do certain things building-wide, we'll now be doing them room-wide, and seeing how it evolves."

Researchers once talked of installing large-scale flat panels with sensing devices and location-dependent systems throughout the Stata Center. Such efforts now will be limited -- initially, at least -- to a Hollideck (named for the Star Trek control system) for immersive reality experiments, an ''intelligent room" for speech and face recognition and motion sensing, and an area outfitted to support ubiquitous wireless connectivity. The retreat is partly a matter of money, but also a recognition that embedding computers in walls might create a headache when technologies are evolving so quickly.

The Stata Center will sit on the site of MIT's old Building 20, a warehouse-style structure thrown up during World War II to develop radar technology. Replacing that building had long been a goal of MIT's Planning Office, which had pegged the cost at $100 million in a 1997 pro forma budget that envisioned the project mainly as new laboratory space.

Over the next five years, as Gehry was hired and Building 20 demolished, a much more ambitious design plan took shape. MIT officials decided to add an auditorium and four classrooms, three ''wet labs" for synthetic biology, child care and fitness centers, a 240-person dining area, and a ''student street" that effectively extends MIT's ''infinite corridor" from Massachusetts Avenue to Kendall Square. They also scrapped plans to build a garage extension on Albany Street and instead opted to put a 700-car underground parking lot beneath the Stata Center, roughly doubling the size of the project.

These changes pushed up the cost, first to $165 million approved by MIT's executive committee in 2000, and then to an amended budget of $285 million in 2002. The project cost was ''capped" at that amount, forcing the builders to abandon plans for some sculptural features on the exterior and put metal rather than wooden railings on the interior stairwells.

While the project is being financed through a mix of private gifts, borrowing, and reimbursement from corporate and government research sponsors, the rising cost of the Stata Center has clearly aggravated MIT's financial problems and irritated some faculty members in a year when salaries have been frozen. MIT officials defended the project in a posting on their internal website last September.

''The repayment of the loans over time does contribute to budget pressures," the memo from the MIT administration acknowledged, ''but the new and revitalized buildings improve our research competitiveness, and all these investments in our physical campus are essential to the continued vitality of our academic enterprise and the quality of our faculty and students."

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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