Monday, February 13, 2012

The Urban Shipwreck

Jonah Lehrer, "Groupthink"
The New Yorker, January 20, 2012, p. 22 - 27

I quote at length below from Lehrer's description of Building 20 at MIT  (taken in turn, at least in part, from Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn).

It is a striking case study of a phenomenon that has always interested me, the concept of the building as a dead artifact that becomes a host to parasitic lifeforms, like a shipwreck colonized by marine flora and fauna.  I've written about this with reference to New York (see my essays New York Lost and Found or Blow-Out, on Gordon Matta-Clark and the New York loft).  Other examples include the current occupation of Madrid's Tobacco Factory (Grass-Roots Landmark), or Paul Rudolph's Art and Architecture Building at Yale University in the 1970s, before its restoration.

These are buildings that no longer serve their original function, or that have been passed down through so many hands that they have suffered all types of alterations and abuse, and thus can be freely modified to serve their current occupants. They are buildings treated not as static aesthetic objects but rather as places of work that can themselves be freely worked and transformed (see Blow-Out).

Other examples are large service buildings (airport terminals, hospitals, university campuses) that have grown over the years through series of additions so as to lose their identity as clear architectural statements, becoming instead a kaleidoscopic jumble of different things pushed together, a miniature city, a labyrinth.

These phenomena are a manifestation of the basic social process of city-making, as seen worldwide in shanty towns that have coalesced over time into urban villages and cities, a natural process that modern urban planners and architects are of course incapable of reproducing. They can only hope to provoke it, or participate with an addition or renovation to an existing complex.

These sites are a model for how contemporary cities must be allowed to be living cities, a definition of urbanity, of the social act of urban habitation. 

Returning to the quote from Lehrer, it is easy to see that, looking beyond his interest in fomenting creativity in social groups, Building 20 is a description of urbanity itself, the same urban qualities that can be found in any Spanish village (but not necessarily in any American town).

Building 20 was replaced by Frank Gehry's Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences, which was designed with social interaction as a top priority.  Has anyone done a followup study to see if the building matches its predecessor?

Postsript 01.27.13. 
Last summer I visited the Strata Center. I've inserted my report below.
Here is Lehrer on Building 20 (see full text).

"In the spring of 1942, it became clear that the Radiation Laboratory at M.I.T.—the main radar research institute for the Allied war effort—needed more space. The Rad Lab had been developing a radar device for fighter aircraft ... and was hiring hundreds of scientists every few months. The proposed new structure, known as Building 20, was going to be the biggest lab yet, comprising two hundred and fifty thousand square feet, on three floors. It was designed in an afternoon by a local architecture firm, and construction was quick and cheap. The design featured a wooden frame on top of a concrete-slab foundation, with an exterior covered in gray asbestos shingles. (Steel was in short supply.) The structure violated the Cambridge fire code, but it was granted an exemption because of its temporary status. M.I.T. promised to demolish Building 20 shortly after the war.
"Initially, Building 20 was regarded as a failure. Ventilation was poor and hallways were dim. The walls were thin, the roof leaked, and the building was broiling in the summer and freezing in the winter. Nevertheless, Building 20 quickly became a center of groundbreaking research, ...celebrated for its important work on military radar. Within a few years, the lab developed radar systems used for naval navigation, weather prediction, and the detection of bombers and U-boats. According to a 1945 statement issued by the Defense Department, the Rad Lab “pushed research in this field ahead by at least 25 normal peacetime years....”
"Immediately after the surrender of Japan ... the Rad Lab offices were dismantled and the radio towers on the roof were taken down. But the influx of students after the G.I. Bill suddenly left M.I.T. desperately short of space. Building 20 was turned into offices for scientists who had nowhere else to go.
The first division to move into Building 20 was the Research Laboratory of Electronics, which grew directly out of the Rad Lab. Because the electrical engineers needed only a fraction of the structure, M.I.T. began shifting a wide variety of academic departments and student clubs to the so-called “plywood palace.” By the nineteen-fifties, Building 20 was home to the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, the Linguistics Department, and the machine shop. There was a particle accelerator, the R.O.T.C., a piano repair facility, and a cell-culture lab.
Building 20 became a strange, chaotic domain, full of groups who had been thrown together by chance and who knew little about one another’s work. And yet, by the time it was finally demolished, in 1998, Building 20 had become a legend of innovation, widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world. In the postwar decades, scientists working there pioneered a stunning list of breakthroughs, from advances in high-speed photography to the development of the physics behind microwaves. Building 20 served as an incubator for the Bose Corporation. It gave rise to the first video game and to Chomskyan linguistics. Stewart Brand, in his study “How Buildings Learn,” cites Building 20 as an example of a “Low Road” structure, a type of space that is unusually creative because it is so unwanted and underdesigned.  .... As a result, scientists in Building 20 felt free to remake their rooms, customizing the structure to fit their needs. Walls were torn down without permission; equipment was stored in the courtyards and bolted to the roof. When Jerrold Zacharias was developing the first atomic clock, working in Building 20, he removed two floors in his lab to make room for a three-story metal cylinder.
"The space also forced solitary scientists to mix and mingle. Although the rushed wartime architects weren’t thinking about the sweet spot of Q or the importance of physical proximity when they designed the structure, they conjured up a space that maximized both of these features, allowing researchers to take advantage of Building 20’s intellectual diversity.
"Room numbers, for instance, followed an inscrutable scheme: rooms on the second floor were given numbers beginning with 1, and third-floor room numbers began with 2. Furthermore, the wings that made up the building were named in an unclear sequence: B wing gave onto A wing, followed by E, D, and C wings. Even longtime residents of Building 20 were constantly getting lost, wandering the corridors in search of rooms. Those looking for the Ice Research Lab had to walk past the military recruiting office; students on their way to play with the toy trains (the Tech Model Railroad Club was on the third floor, in Room No. 20E-214) strolled along hallways filled with the latest computing experiments.
"The building’s horizontal layout also spurred interaction. Brand quotes Henry Zimmerman, an electrical engineer who worked there for years: “In a vertical layout with small floors, there is less research variety on each floor. Chance meetings in an elevator tend to terminate in the lobby, whereas chance meetings in a corridor tended to lead to technical discussions....”
"Building 20 was full of knowledge spillovers. Take the career of Amar Bose. In the spring of 1956, Bose, a music enthusiast, procrastinating in writing his dissertation, decided to buy a hi-fi. He chose the system with the best technical specs, but found that the speakers sounded terrible. Bose realized that the science of hi-fi needed help and began frequenting the Acoustics Lab, which was just down the hall. Before long, Bose was spending more time playing with tweeters than he was on his dissertation. Nobody minded the interloper in the lab, and, three years later, Bose produced a wedge-shaped contraption outfitted with twenty-two speakers, a synthesis of his time among the engineers and his musical sensibility. The Bose Corporation was founded soon afterward.
"A similar lesson emerges from the Linguistics Department at M.I.T., which was founded by Morris Halle, in the early fifties. According to Halle, he was assigned to Building 20 because that was the least valuable real estate on campus, and nobody thought much of linguists. Nevertheless, he soon grew fond of the building, if only because he was able to tear down several room dividers. This allowed Halle to transform a field that was often hermetic, with grad students working alone in the library, into a group exercise... “At Building 20, we made a big room, so that all of the students could talk to each other,” Halle remembers. “That’s how I wanted them to learn.”
"One of Halle’s ... recruits was ... Noam Chomsky.... For the next several decades, Halle and Chomsky worked in adjacent offices, which were recalled by a colleague as “the two most miserable holes in the whole place.” Although the men studied different aspects of language,  ... the men spent much of their day talking about their work....
"After a few years at M.I.T., Chomsky revolutionized the study of linguistics by proposing that every language shares a “deep structure,” which reflects the cognitive structures of the mind. Chomsky’s work drew from disparate fields—biology, psychology, and computer science. At the time, the fields seemed to have nothing in common—except the hallways of Building 20. “Building 20 was a fantastic environment,” Chomsky says. “It looked like it was going to fall apart. But it was extremely interactive.” He went on, “There was a mixture of people who later became separate departments interacting informally all the time. You would walk down the corridor and meet people and have a discussion.” "

Photo:  Building 20 at MIT, 1943-1998
Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA)
Source: MIT history webpage

Postscript 01.27.13. 
Report from Frank Gehry's Strata Center. 

All photos by DC

On a hot day in August, my only day in Boston, I spent a couple of hours wandering through the Strata Building.  Despite the rippling, collage of its endless exterior facades, it is basically an interior building, a work that makes sense only from inside. And of those interiors, the amorphous open ground-floor, full of noisy event, makes the biggest impression. But it comes into focus, I think, only at one point, where natural lights comes down into a kind of clearing in the woods, and people can open their laptops at a couple of tables, their faces illuminated in the shadows of the projecting, angled planes of stuff all around.  That was the only real photo I got out of the whole place.

The cafeteria is another moment, well-positioned close to the flow of people and the outdoors. It was interesting to see how students and teachers, either alone, in couples or in groups, colonized the space. I especially noted a solitary student plugged into his notebook in an over-scaled skylit nook flooded in blue.

Later, and elsewhere in the sprawling space, tables were set up and coffee and brownies appeared for some sort of reception. And climbing the stair to the second floor of the central atrium, I found a student lounging in an window nook, reading.

I went upstairs to a random floor and wandered around. Without realizing it, I passed through a couple of doors and found myself in a standard corridor, straight, with doors on both sides, and all of a sudden I began to get interested. I later realized I had passed into another building –everything at MIT is interconnected– and that I was in something much closer to Building 20. It worked: I was fascinated, I fell in love with every specialty, I wanted to know what was going on behind every door.

Next to that experience, Gehry's gymnastics seem superfluous. Exercises in overspending to coddle precocious adolescents – the phenomenon that William Hanley calls the "Corporate Kindergarten" (Architectural Record, September 2012).

Which stands in such stark contrast to the general misery of the Boston inner suburbs near and around the campus. Whereas Building 20, part of that misery, was a Gordon Matta-Clark kind of place, a place conceived for work and transformation and not for the freeze-frame of the aesthetic gaze. However dynamic that gaze may be, it is deadening in comparison to a gritty reality at the service of work and transformation.

Or is this observation just post-industrial nostalgia, romanticizing the ruins?

No comments:

Post a Comment