Correa in Cambridge
The BCS is the latest in a series of mega projects that MIT has constructed over the past five years. Others in the series include such landmarks as Steven Holl's Simmons Hall dormitory, the Zesiger Sports and Fitness building by Kevin Roche, and Gehry's Stata Center.
As if contending with all of the buildings nudging around the BCS site on every side weren't enough of a challenge, right smack in the middle of it are train tracks, running lengthwise from northeast to southwest. These are surface train tracks and still in active use. This means the building had to accommodate freight trains rumbling through its middle twice daily without upsetting the delicate research performed inside with sensitive equipment.
The architects ably handled the train problem by designing the building to lift its skirt two stories high and 50 feet (15 meters) wide through its center, its legs straddling the tracks. To mitigate the trains' low-frequency vibrations, the building's foundation system is composed of hundreds of steel piles, driven an average depth of 110 feet (34 meters) into bedrock.
According to architect Roger Goldstein of Goody Clancy, there is more steel for this building under the ground than above it — the equivalent of about 11 miles (18 kilometers) of piles. The world-famous firm of LeMessurier Consultants served as structural engineer.
Inside the Brain
Three different entities inhabit the BCS: MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; the McGovern Institute for Brain Research; and the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. Each of these has its own program and research agenda, although much of what they do is collaborative in nature. Thus the architects needed to give each its own sense of identity while cultivating the type of collaborative atmosphere that has become a staple of modern science buildings.
"Proximity and buildings matter a great deal in science," says Mriganka Sur, who heads the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, adding that a research environment such as this one needs to provide researchers easy access to each other to aid in the cross-pollination of ideas and in "other ways and levels and scales of thinking and knowing."
At ground level, the building has two public entrances: one on Albany Street and the other on Vassar. The entries lead to elevator lobbies, which in turn deliver you to a central atrium on the third floor. As architectural sculpture, the BCS gives the impression of a single object, carved away from both inside and out. Glazed areas express the points where its limestone skin has been visually sliced.
The most severe carving of the form takes place on the Vassar Street side as it faces Gehry's Stata Center, providing views outward toward campus and inward to its own beehive of activity. At the sharpest angle of the triangular site, the building draws itself up like the prow of a ship — where the seas meet the rails, perhaps. From this angle the building appears to being doing a rather plausible impression of the East Wing of the National Gallery by I.M. Pei.
At the heart of the building is a 90-foot- (27-meter-) high, sun-drenched courtyard topped with a cable-truss-supported skylight. The courtyard serves as this community's "commons." Each of the three separate research entities is accessible from the commons, and each looks out over this bright space on the work being conducted by a circle of colleagues.
The atrium helps to break down the barriers between disciplines and allows for chance sightings and meetings of researchers throughout the BCS. This space also allows sunlight to penetrate deep into the building, balancing the illumination obtained from the exterior walls. Color in the courtyard is used sparingly but to vibrant effect, as bright yellows intensify and then fade along the walls, lending a visual "pulse" to the courtyard.
Given the complex program, a shoe-horned site, and a railroad rumbling through its middle, the architects have delivered a bright, stimulating research environment that should keep the train of brain research moving without delay.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...
Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, a senior associate with Steven Winter Associates, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.