Ode to Connectivity

Ode to Connectivity

The new MIT Media Lab, designed by Fumihiko Maki, is a hive of activity swathed in glass for all to see.
Andy Ryan

The Media Lab at MIT has helped pioneer some of the last quarter-century’s advances in social connectivity—wireless networks, viral communications—but since 1985, its engineers, programmers, artists, and scientists have been sequestered inside I.M. Pei’s Wiesner Building, a warren of offices and corridors walled off from the world around it.

I.M. Pei’s Wiesner Building, the Media Lab’s home since 1985.
Courtesy MIT

The third-floor atrium.

Anton Grassl/Esto

That all changed on March 5, when the MIT School of Architecture + Planning, which oversees the Media Lab, dedicated a $90 million building designed by Fumihiko Maki. A series of stacked, glass-walled volumes open to one another and to the surrounding Cambridge campus, the 163,000-square-foot structure counts as Maki’s most accomplished U.S. work to date, and sets a powerful example for how architecture can promote social serendipity.

The idea of ad-hoc encounters is by now a common trope—it was the driving logic at MIT’s nearby Stata Center, designed by Frank Gehry—but Gary Kamemoto, director at Tokyo-based Maki and Associates, said that inspiration for the new building actually came from one well-loved space buried within the Pei structure, also known as Building E15: a double-height, cube-shaped research volume. “E15 is almost opaque from the outside,” Kamemoto said during a tour of the lab on opening day, but the structure’s voluminous interior space could be counted on to spark collaboration. “They almost wanted to turn that building inside-out and expose everything.”

Working with Boston-based executive architect Leers Weinzapfel and structural engineer Weidlinger, Maki created seven cube-shaped lab spaces staggered vertically around a pair of interlocking atria. This complex sectional arrangement offers striking views from one lab to another, as well as transparency to the streetscape. The double-height labs themselves are ringed by glass-fronted offices at a mezzanine level, reached by spiral staircases, and carefully detailed for maximum visual connections to the labs below.

The first-floor atrium.

Anton Grassl/esto

Slicing through the central atria—which are on staggered floors to further connect the labs, cafe, and lounges at various levels within the building—are three staircases colored brightly like a De Stijl composition, while transparent elevators add to the dynamic sense of motion. Mullionless glazing throughout allows views clear through the structure, which connects on several floors to the existing Pei building.

In keeping with the mandate for openness, several public spaces are located on the top floor, including a rounded, 100-seat lecture theater and a 3,500-square-foot multipurpose space with views to the Boston skyline. The four-story, street-side atrium is flanked by gallery spaces and notched ground-floor corners that—as at Maki’s new Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania—draw the sidewalk within. Nearly the entire building, lab spaces included, is publicly accessible during daytime hours.

To adhere to local energy codes, an exterior screen of aluminum pipe louvers shades the lab spaces—an idea borrowed from traditional Japanese bamboo screens—while daylight is carefully modulated through the use of two different types of glass: clear insulated glass with a low-e coating for the screened areas, and fritted low-iron glass for the more public zones.

A double-height lab space.

Anton Grassl/esto

The School of Architecture + Planning will make use of some of the new building’s facilities, including its digital fabrication lab. (In fact, the architecture department is a bit miffed that it remains stuck in its 1916 headquarters, some distance away. “So now I’m demanding another building,” Adèle Naudé Santos, dean of the School of Architecture + Planning, said with a laugh.)

Maki’s design has already won praise from lab members who find it an ideal container for their work. “It’s a space that allows a lot of social interaction, and it’s very minimal at the same time,” said Sotirios Kotsopoulos, a researcher at the Mobile Experience Lab. “And the light is extremely beautiful.” At a place where engineers are crafting the next generation of responsive environments, Maki’s ode to connectivity can be considered a breakthrough in its own right. “This is an organization that is constantly trying to reinvent itself,” Kamemoto explained. “Every time we come to the building, the research changes, and the way the building is being used changes—which will keep the building alive.”