Maki's MIT Media Lab
Within each such volume, the faculty and grad-student offices occupy a mezzanine level, connected to an open research area by a spiral staircase. Each mezzanine is also accessible by elevator.
"The miracle of the building is this series of interlocking two-story spaces," says Andy Lippman, associate director of the Media Lab. "The spaces facilitate what I call 'diagonal thinking.' You can stand in the atrium and see through glass into each one of the labs and observe what everybody is doing at any given time."
According to Lippman, the open and nonhierarchical nature of the space is both efficient and rooted in the Media Lab's history. "Back in the early 1980s, if you had some expensive technological gizmo, it was too important to hide in a faculty office," he says. "I use the metaphor of 'computer garden.' Everything is out in the open for the taking and using."
The architects designed the building circulation to facilitate contact among researchers. The structure actually includes two atria: a lower public atrium, and an upper atrium around which the labs are arrayed. Stairs bridging the atria are painted bright red, blue, and yellow — a Mondrianesque touch highlighting that connectivity, and creating a lively visual contrast to the building's predominantly white-and-gray palette.
For all of his restrained modernist sensibility, Maki actually uses a Palladian idea for the arrangement of the building's elements. "It is a tripartite composition," explains Maki. "The base is composed of the main entrance and its fairly low-ceiling exhibition spaces; the upper and lower atria form the piano nobile; and the public spaces on the roof are the crown."
As an architecture student at Harvard University in the early 1950s, Maki remembers touring a new building on the MIT campus and marveling at the stunning views of the Boston skyline and the Charles River.
Placing the public auditorium, meeting rooms, and cafe on the top floor of the new Media Lab building takes advantage of these views, and Maki has done so in a way that creates an interesting geometric profile visible from the Boston side of the river.
Since the building opened in early March, this lofty space has already become a popular venue for campus events, according to Patti Richards, MIT's director of media relations. "It's high on everybody's list," she reports.
The steel-framed Media Lab building is sheathed in a system of aluminum rods that Gary Kamemoto, director of Maki and Associates, likens to a traditional Japanese bamboo screen.
Energy codes in Cambridge, as in many U.S. cities, dictate building perimeters of no more than 50 percent glass. "And yet we were asked to do a completely glass building," Kamemoto says.
"And so we went back to our own roots and created a scrim that both reduces heat gain and offers a reinterpretation of the views. Viewing the exterior from the interior is like looking at a Seurat painting. And at night the building glows like a lantern."
"Screens or slats made of woven wood or bamboo are traditionally common in Japanese buildings to shield the interior space from sunlight and rain," continues Kamemoto. "The lightness of their construction allows light, views, and breeze to pass through while providing shade and privacy."
At the new Media Lab building, the exterior screens are made from extruded aluminum tube three-quarters of an inch (19 millimeters) in diameter, spaced 1.5 inches (38 millimeters) on center. This creates 50 percent open and 50 percent shaded area on the largely glass perimeter, according to Kamemoto.
The aluminum scrim reduces heat gain in summer while still allowing ample daylight to enter the building. Heat gain is further reduced by the high-performance, two-layer, argon-filled insulated glazing with low-e coatings and a 50-percent ceramic frit in a micro-dot pattern. Awning-style operable windows are used throughout the building to provide natural ventilation.
The most memorable thing about the new Media Lab building may be the juxtaposition of the restrained, elegant architectural container and the "outside the box" creative thinking taking place within.
For the Media Lab's Lippman, the structure's success lies in the functional grace of this pairing. "It's truly an exemplar building that reflects our open style," he says. "It's a mirror of us."
The beautiful, orthogonal form of the new Media Lab building stands in stark contrast to the slanted, staggered wall planes of MIT's nearby Stata Center by Frank Gehry, an infamously fraught 2004 building.
Building E14 seems more like an extension of MIT's post-World War II architectural history. Buildings by Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, Pei, and others represent an especially cerebral form of geometric rationalism. In this august company, Fumihiko Maki readily holds his own.
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James McCown is a freelance writer based in Somerville, Massachusetts. More by James McCown