Inside MIT’s new geek lair

According to legend, when researchers working out of Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology needed to run wires between laboratories, they’d grab a broom and drive the handle through the building’s interior walls to make the necessary connections.

That’s the kind of place Building 20 was. A beater. An unpretentious container for unbridled scientific experimentation. MIT constructed Building 20 in 1943 in the northeast corner of its Cambridge campus, away from the more picturesque parts as a temporary structure for its radiation laboratory. MIT expected to vacate the building after the conclusion of World War II. The wooden, asbestos-ridden structure far outlasted its life expectancy. But it couldn’t last forever.

MIT tore down Building 20 in 1999, and in its place stands a brand-new, entirely different structure flooded with natural light, gleaming metal surfaces and a form that screams “look at me” to passersby. The new US$300 million building — which was formally dedicated last week — is home to MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Its designer is renowned architect Frank Gehry, whose other work includes the titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the spectacularly expressive Rasin office tower in Prague, nicknamed “Fred and Ginger” for its two entwined pieces — one a flared glass-and-steel tower, the other a more solid concrete cylinder.

Gehry’s team had its work cut out for it in designing a new complex on the Building 20 site. Many MIT researchers didn’t want the old structure razed. They revered Building 20, not for its architecture but for the ideas conceived in its laboratories and offices.

The first Building 20 occupants perfected radar systems critical to the Allied forces victory in World War II. Later Amar Bose —- of speaker maker Bose Corp. — is rumored to have surreptitiously tested his speaker designs in the building’s anechoic chamber. More recently, Building 20 residents conceived ideas that evolved into companies such as encryption specialist RSA Security Inc. and content services provider Akamai Technologies Inc.

“There was a lot of love for a building called Building 20,” Gehry said last week at a dedication event.

But MIT leaders made the decision to retire Building 20 to make way for a larger, more modern facility that could accommodate CSAIL along with the university’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems and its Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. The new building houses linguists and speech-recognition specialists alongside scientists devising tools for image-guided surgery and those building portable devices that understand human gestures.

Its formal name is the Ray and Maria Stata Center (Ray Stata is an MIT graduate and co-founder of semiconductor maker Analog Devices Inc.). It’s 730,000 square feet — more than three times the area of Building 20. Running throughout Stata Center is a 10Gbps optical Ethernet backbone with 1Gbps Ethernet service to 1,000 desktops; Cisco Catalyst 6500 switches anchor the network.

Befitting its techie residents, Stata Center was built using digital replacements for tape measures. Instead of rolls of two-dimensional drawings, thousands of laser points projected from land-surveying gear told contractors where to cut and where to build, said Jim Glymph, who heads Gehry Technologies, a newly formed spinoff of Gehry’s design firm. While other clients have been skeptical of the lack of physical construction documents, at MIT the response was, “Well of course, how else would you do it?” Glymph said.

From the outside, Stata Center looks like a dozen buildings squeezed together by the hand of a giant. Brick, stainless steel and painted white aluminum facades run into each other and create a series of irregular protrusions. Within the curves and angles are labs, offices and lecture halls. There’s even a mirrored cylindrical volume called the “nose” that houses a robotics lab.

Inside the building, the architects tried to replicate some of the messy atmosphere of Building 20 by specifying plain concrete floors and simple plywood dividers between workstations. Gehry wanted users to feel comfortable tearing down or punching holes through interior walls; the finishes are not intended to be “precious,” Gehry said.

The Stata Center layout is designed to encourage collaboration among researchers of different disciplines. Virtually none of the corridors are straight; tucked in the angles are countless open areas which can be used as informal meeting spaces. There are also multiple caf’s, a gym and day-care centre.

“The need was for something that would attract collisions of people by accident,” Gehry said. Building 20, with its small, closed offices, encouraged researchers to hole up in solitude, whereas the Stata Center strives to create intimacy and interaction, he said.

At least one researcher says the plan is working — seeing activity through the glass walls of his team’s lab pulls him inside, says Anant Agarwal. “I come into the lab a lot more often than before,” he says. Agarwal is working on a 1,020-node microphone array, powered by a tiled parallel-processor architecture, that can separate the voice of one speaker from among thousands of voices.

Erik Demaine likes the irregularly shaped offices. One might expect this MIT professor to, because his research is in computational origami.

“I like the far-out crazy geometries,” says Demaine, who is studying the mathematic and algorithmic aspects of paper folding. It’s a research area that could seem a bit frivolous, on the surface. But Demaine is pursuing unexpectedly practical uses for the technology, such as designing safer airbags.

For professors Seth Teller and Jon Leonard, the building’s complexity provides a great opportunity to test their robots. The pair is working on autonomous robot navigation and mapping — their robots are programmed to explore an unknown area, build a model of the environment as they go along and then use that model to determine location. Stata Center with its maze of corridors seems a perfect testing habitat for this team.

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