Sunday, January 27, 2013

Gehry's Strata Building and the Aesthetic Gaze

All fotos by DC
Last summer I visited Frank Gehry's Strata Center at MIT. I wanted to compare it to the original structure on the site, known as Building 20, and famous for the pioneering science that had been produced there, which was the subject of my blog entry The Urban Shipwreck (Feb. 13, 2012).

On a hot day in August, my only day in Boston, I spent a couple of hours wandering through the 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?

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