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Where ideas can flow

MIT’s Media Lab moves into $90 million building designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 6, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE - It took more than 10 years, but the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s famed Media Lab has finally moved into its new digs.

The gleaming aluminum structure on Amherst Street in Cambridge officially opened yesterday. Media Lab director Frank Moss said its large central atrium and glass-enclosed laboratories are ideal spaces for the lab’s collaborative research projects.

“It delivers on the vision of a unique way of doing research,’’ Moss said. “No boundaries, no walls, a flow of interdisciplinary ideas, and plenty of space to build and invent.’’

The new lab’s Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Fumihiko Maki, called it “one of the best buildings we ever produced in my long career, both in Japan and in the United States.’’

The plans for the new Media Lab were announced in 1999, as part of a major building campaign for the MIT campus. The most famous of the new buildings, a computer science center designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, was completed in 2004. But Maki’s plans for the Media Lab were put in a drawer after the Internet boom of the late-1990s faded and corporate financing for the project dwindled.

Construction of the $90 million, 163,000-square-foot building finally began in July 2007. Alan Steinberg, project executive for the building’s general contractor, Bond Brothers of Everett, said it generally takes about 18 months to build a standard office building of that size. But the new Media Lab is far from standard. “It’s a lot of intricacies, a lot of parts and pieces,’’ Steinberg said.

For instance, Maki insisted on using custom-designed doorframes. His design includes dozens of electric winches mounted in the ceilings, each capable of lifting up to 1,000 pounds. This lets MIT researchers lift and suspend a wide variety of devices. But it required the use of extra steel girders to support the additional weight. Meanwhile, the building’s aluminum-clad exterior had to be painted a special shade of gray formulated by Maki himself. “You can’t get this at Home Depot,’’ Steinberg said.

Founded in 1985 by MIT architecture professor Nicholas Negroponte and former MIT president Jerome Wiesner, the Media Lab was originally housed next door to the new building, in a structure designed by another famous architect, I.M. Pei. The lab applies digital technologies to everyday problems in communications, media, and the arts. Sixty corporate sponsors fund Media Lab research, which the companies can apply to their products and services. The lab’s research is incorporated into a number of popular products, including music-based video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band and electronic book readers like Amazon.com's Kindle.

The building’s seven laboratories are already bustling with activity. A team led by composer Tod Machover was preparing a vast high-tech chandelier for the September premiere in Monaco of Machover’s new opera, “Death and the Powers,’’ about a man who uploads his consciousness into a machine. In another lab, researchers William Lark, Ryan Chin, and Michael Lin showed off their efforts to design a two-passenger electric car that can be folded to half its normal size when parked. Doctoral candidate Grant Elliott demonstrated research in “biomechatronics,’’ advanced prosthetic devices that use digital technology to help amputees walk normally and with less effort.

The Media Lab won’t have the building to itself. Although the Media Lab is the lead tenant, MIT’s school of architecture will share the facility. But Media Lab researchers will still have lots of space. They’ll retain access to their original 121,000-square-foot building, which has been neatly grafted onto the new structure.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

Correction: The original version of this article attributed the wrong honor to architect Fumihiko Maki. He won the Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Inside the Media Lab

Inside the Media Lab

Take a look inside MIT's new $90 million building.