Working in the Stata Center

The Stata Center at MIT, an office building for computer science researchers, has been in the news recently due to a spat between MIT and the architect.  What’s it like to work in the building?  Here’s an excerpt from a mailing list discussion… (reproduced with permission from the author, who continues to work in the building and wishes to remain anonymous)

The Stata Center sux big hairy green rocks from the coast of Maine.  Far too little storage space (while there are vast volumes of what is presumably architecturally interesting open space — that are unreachable by humans), every group walled off into pod spaces, most support staff are stuck out in open space rather than the offices they had in Technology Square [Ed: the former location of the lab; a vanilla 1960s box of an office tower; referred to as “tech square” or “NE43”], most grad students have to sit around in open space areas (rather than having offices — shared offices, but at least with closable doors and some amount of personal storage), many grad students are offered lockers — as in, the sort they have in high schools — to store their stuff in.  Graduate students tend to take over various conference rooms to hack in (on their laptops).

The building is so convoluted that people not familiar with it need trained native guides to find their ways around — hardly inviting to visitors.

The research pod areas are bad in two ways: lack of natural communication between groups even on the same floor (amplifies the tech^2 problems of vertical communication), and lack of a natural way to expand and contract office space used by a group as the research funding ebbs & flows.

I was always told that What We Wanted was something with -somewhat- more
public space than tech^2, and openable windows. What we got, instead, was
an Architect’s Signature Building. It sucks.

15 thoughts on “Working in the Stata Center

  1. Spending so much with such complete disregard for the needs of the humans working in the building is a rather shocking display of cruelty.

  2. Ironic, isn’t it? Building 20 was renowned for its useful floor layout and the ability of people to work and collaborate easily.

  3. The Stata center is a monstrosity, and an embarrassing waste of MIT’s money. I can’t believe they spent $300M on that crap.

    But MIT really should have known better. They made the easily foreseeable mistake of hiring Gehry, and knew exactly what they were getting into. As someone else said, they drank the post-modern kool-aid, and they’re now paying the price.

    As an alum myself, I probably won’t be donating any money to MIT for a long time. If they blow this kind of $ on such trash, clearly they don’t need my donations.

  4. I’d really like to know how much of the decision to go with a architectural showpiece was driven by a need to outdo the Media Lab’s building (which also suffered from too much high-flown arty design, but at least proved to be reasonably serviceable).

    Here’s what I would have done, if I wanted to be architecturally innovative in a way that was compatible with the MIT way — design a building that is radically reconfigurable by its occupants. Build in a giant 3-dimensional framework, make it easy to stick in modular floors and walls in arbitrary places. A pair of grad students ought to be able to build themselves an office a few hours. Maybe enforce rules about exit pathways with some design software, if necessary.

  5. MIT is to be commended for encouraging designs that foster communication. If the building doesn’t deliver, it’s partly architect’s fault, and partly the planning committee’s for approving the design.

  6. This is a disturbing trend that is happening identically to at least one other engineering school. Cooper Union in NYC is doing pretty much the same thing: leaving a 1960s box for an “Architect’s Signature Building”. Folks I know there in the trenches are quietly grumbling but won’t dare speak out publicly since the administration has staked too much on it. I’m sure the people there and at MIT are well intentioned since the priority seems to aim to increase the school’s reputation but unfortunately by way of enlargement of the architect’s ego. Pass the Kool-aid…

  7. I’ve seen the building during and after construction. Both times, my first thought is that the building is a reflection of how modern software systems are designed and built. “Components” look “hacked” onto the building in weird ways to make it work. “Features” that users don’t really want exist because it looks cool. Maybe the Stata Center should be renamed the Vista Center.

    I appreciate bold and new architectural designs that stretch the imagination and push engineering boundaries. But I also know crap when I see it.

  8. I used to work in a Gehry designed building on the campus of UC Irvine.

    All the things you say about Strata applied there as well. Ill conceived
    space for actual working. Leaking roofs. HVAC that could never balance
    itself, etc. I hated working in that building. But since it was a Gehry building
    there was always a guy with a camera on a tripod outside.

    As is UC Irvine’s modus operandi, they demolished it a few years ago to put
    up a new CS building.

    On the other hand, the new concert hall he designed in Los Angeles is

  9. There was time when it was “cool” to have one of these goofy buildings on your campus or city. Denver’s new art mueum building looks like one of the crystals from the movie superman’s Fortress of Solitude. It has leaks and maintenance issues as well.
    People will look back at these as say “thats so 2000” much like the look at Art Deco (1930s) or glass & aluminum (1960s) etc.

  10. Phil might be a tad too young, but one of the more interesting architecture spaces at MIT used to be the predecessor of the Media Lab called the Computer Architecture Lab (or something like that). The fourth floor of Building 7 (small dome) was opened up into several large lofts and the students built these incredible 3D maze/passage ways/desk lofts there. This reminded me the “organic” arkology/ecology architecture movement in the 70s. Building grew light self-accreting coral reefs withlarge surface exposure to the outside environment. At the same time they had small footprints on the environment.

  11. Philip has been around MIT snce 1979 (he was a freshman when I was a sophomore, and lived across the hallway from me). That maze in building 7 was there when we were there, I’m sorry to hear it’s gone now.

    Building 20 was even better — a “temporary” WWII building in which great things were accomplished because the tenants were basically left free to reconfigure it in any way they wanted.

    I’ve spent a lot of time recently in the Princeton University Mathematics Common Room in Fine Hall (research collaboration with J.H. Conway) and for over a year a monstrous “scary Gehry” building has been rising next door. The mathematicians find it disgusting because the geometrical forms it uses COULD have been mathematically interesting, but instead apparently reproduce a freehand Gehry doodle rather than having a coherent geometry. And the building blocks the sunlight and ruins the view.

  12. I couldn’t agree more with the anonymous poster. Nothing is black and white, and I have a certain appreciation for some of the aspects of the stata center, but by and large, it is a failure. And if you ask most anybody but one of the Gehry sycophants like Rodney Brooks, they will agree. Most of the modification to the building by the occupants has been to fight against Gehry’s design–such as covering windows to gain privacy–not work with his “program.” (We should all get very nervous when guys who design building start talking about having programs.) Those brilliant little nooks and meeting spaces are often cluttered with storage bins and file cabinets, the space for which was not apparently thought of by Gehry. People who work there mostly hate it, but people who drive by it fall over themselves expressing it’s genius. But it won’t withstand the test of time as it stands a century. It barely withstands driving by it twice.

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