Imagining MIT: Designing a Campus for the Twenty-First Century

author: William J. Mitchell, MIT Media Lab, School of Architecture + Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: July 18, 2011,   recorded: April 2007,   views: 3422

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After viewing William Mitchell’s presentation, viewers may wish to apply to MIT, or at the very least, take a campus tour, to experience up close the architecture he describes. Mitchell’s talk -- drawn from his recent book, Imagining MIT-- first skims the history of MIT’s classical, industry-minded buildings, then focuses on a recent billion-dollar construction boom that has resulted in pathbreaking examples of urban design for academic purposes.

Mitchell provides five case studies, replete with slides, of architectural design and development. It is “an architecture story we don’t often read in newspapers or in glossy books—the inside story about how large and complex buildings get put together.” When this process takes place within the context of big money, and many competing organizational, physical and political needs, “dialog, interaction and intense argument” result.

As MIT’s architectural advisor, Mitchell had to address the pragmatic requirements of laboratory research, and office, dormitory and social spaces, as well as try to encourage bold, adventurous and playful design. The Ray and Maria Stata Center, by Frank Gehry, for example, began as sketches, with “roots in abstract expressionist painting.” Mitchell describes a struggle to keep the freshness of these early sketches while developing the structure. “A building can easily go dead and boring while going through the process,” he says. Modeling the Center consisted of crumpling up pieces of paper and dropping them onto rough outlines of buildings. 3D computer modeling was used to execute the tricky design, and this helped liberate the building from the traditional repeated grids and modules. The digital model also provided precise coordinates for the building’s construction. Traditional methods of architectural layout, “with tape measures and plum bobs, were not going to work with a building like this,” says Mitchell. Ultimately, “it became a landscape of highly varied spaces that …enabled construction at a reasonable price of forms of great complexity.”

In final form, the Stata Center illustrates a principle close to Mitchell’s heart, that of nonassigned space. In traditional lab buildings, corridors and other ‘nonproductive’ spaces are reduced as much as possible. But in the Stata Center, and other works Mitchell showcases, circulation space plays multiple and important functions: “serendipitous meetings happen,” and the unassigned nooks and crannies become places for unexpected conversations, quiet reflection or even the convergences of disciplines. Also, the unorthodox design “cut canyons through buildings,” so even people housed deep in the heart of the structure connected to the exterior, with light, air and a view.

Mitchell conveys how MIT’s latest architecture has fundamentally shifted to accommodate the fluidity of intellectual life there. “The most important resource at MIT is people, and they thrive if they have a vibrant social environment…where they can bump into each other in ways that lead to productive intellectual exchange.” Great universities “should aim high,” say Mitchell, and while “architecture is intensely practical, at the same time it should always be an affair of the imagination and spirit.”

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