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On Architecture: a look at the MIT Media Lab extension

Posted by Your Town  October 6, 2010 08:41 AM

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In recent years MIT has been an experimental playground for some of the world’s top architects. From Frank Gehry and his Stata student center, to Steven Holl and his Simmons Hall dormitory, there are some truly remarkable buildings on campus. The latest addition to the ensemble is the long awaited Media Lab extension designed by the great Japanese architect, Fumihiko Maki. Originally commissioned ten years ago, its opening was delayed by different obstacles including a difficult climate for fund raising.

Upon first glance, the building exterior has a high-tech feel with lacy metal screens covering large expanses of glass. The detailing is exquisite and certainly is an exemplary model for a building that houses the School of Architecture + Planning’s Design Lab, amongst other arts and media related programs.

While much of the building’s attention is focused on the object-like qualities of the exterior, I’m most interested in the quality of the interior space. When you go inside, my first impression is that everything feels slightly off. Not off in a bad way, but more like when you go on a trip to Europe and notice that all the little things, the light switches, the plugs, the door handles, seem just a bit different. The building has that quality to me. Everything is so white and reflective. This is exaggerated by having so much natural light coming in through the glass walls and skylight. You almost feel as if you have been transported into the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Another curious thing is that you don’t see the usual stuff that you would expect in most university buildings. Where are the posters and the tack boards full of information about clubs and parties and guest lectures- all of the signs of student life? As it turns out, these elements have been replaced by flat screen monitors that are located on virtually every wall. Simply touching any monitor will activate the screen and lead you to the information that you are looking for. The technology is not earth shattering, but the lack of visual clutter in the space that results by using it does leave a strong impression.

In the center of the building is a soaring atrium space with studios and research labs located on three sides. Boldly painted staircases criss cross the space, while a very mechanical looking glass elevator delivers people straight up and down.
The large glass walls of the various studios and labs are intended to promote visual interactivity and understanding across different disciplines. And then there are the ubiquitous video screens. The screens are mounted just outside of each studio and televise the activities of the work that is taking place within. The overall transparency, i.e. the overall sense of sharing ideas is telling.

According to Ute Meta Bauer, the Director of the Art, Culture and Technology program, “The atrium is a transparent beehive. The idea of the multi-story labs comes the original Media Lab building (designed by I.M. Pei.) that proved to be a stimulating setting for cross pollination across different groups.”


When I first visited the space this past summer, I was amazed by the strange and wonderful things that were being developed in the studio spaces. I was especially curious about the Tangible Media Department on the top floor. Looking through the glass, I could see mannequins wearing dresses that had blinking sensors sewed into the fabric. I asked one of the students, Keywon Chung, what it was all about.

“It’s an interactive dress.” she explained. “The dress has sensors that have a pre-recorded sound. When the wearer of the dress touches one of the sensors, the pre-recorded message emanates from the dress.”

Then she added, “If you like that kind of thing, you should see what Ian Wojtowicz is doing on the first floor. He’s making interactive books- like an online book club.”

Keywon walked over to the glass and pointed down to his first floor studio.

“Just go down there.”

And with that, I was experiencing firsthand the potential of the building as a social condenser. Everyone’s work is visible to everyone else. And no doubt, the open atrium space sparks creative synergies between the students.

The idea of openly sharing the work of the students has a wonderful precedent just down Mass Ave. at Harvard’s Carpenter Center. Here a sinuous public ramp leads the public from the sidewalk through the center of the building. Anyone can look through the large glass walls and see the work that is being created in the different studios. At the Media Lab, the idea has been updated by utilizing new technologies to promote interconnectivity revolving around art, culture and technology. Looking at the building as an object from the outside is nice, but it is amazing to see it in action.

Stephen Chung is a Boston architect whose work can be found at www.coolspaces.tv and www.stephenchung.com

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