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Speakers Commemorate Rich, Varied History of Building 20


T. Luke Young--The Tech
Hackers paid their last respects to Building 20 last Friday. The building is slated for demolition this year.

By Susan Buchman
Staff Reporter

While most students were busy recuperating from the rigors of the academic year, some revisited a piece of MIT's past. Alumni, professors, administrators, and others attended a recent commemoration of the soon-to-be-demolished Building 20. The event, entitled "MIT's Building 20: The Magic Incubator," took place over spring break.

The program, on March 26 and 27, focused on the important role that Building 20 has played in the history of research and innovation at MIT. The commemoration consisted of lectures on the history of Building 20, meals, and tours of the building.

The building, built in 1943 as temporary space, is now the subject of nostalgic tales. In 1940, Vannevar Bush '16, head of the National Defense Research Committee, awarded radiation research to MIT. The results of this research would be used in the Allied effort in World War II. To make room for this research, Building 20 was constructed on what had previously been an athletic field.

From its inception it was intended to be a temporary building; it was first slated for destruction in 1946. "When I arrived at MITas a freshman in 1954, I was told that building 20 was a temporary building constructed during World War IIand that it would certainly be torn down soon to make way for a more permanent building," said Robert L. Baber '58, now a management consultant, in a book of reminiscences compiled for the program.

It was finally decided that Building 20 will be torn down this year to make room for the Stata Complex, which will house MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science.

Professor of Physics Rainer Weiss '55 gave a lecture entitled "Building 20 and Scientific Innovation," which noted that Building. 20's horizontal layout facilitated interaction.

"Some of the best students I ever got were people walking down Vassar Street and saw the crazy things going on," Weiss said. On the other hand, because Building 20 was always just about to be torn down, it was severely neglected.

Building 20 had its own charm

Many found the neglect of Building 20 part of its charm, and, at times, it was even a benefit. Because it was always on the brink of demolition, researchers felt free to knock down a wall, repaint, or do anything that would help in their research.

"Building 20 had a nice atmosphere in spite of the physical environment. It took a while to get used to it, but then it felt comfortable, kind of like an old shoe. I remember one time we were sitting around a table and a big lighting fixture fell from the ceiling onto the table. Since we were in Building 20, no one was surprised, and fortunately no one was hurt," remembered Senior Research Scientist Joseph S. Perkell '64.

After the end of the World War II, the Radiation Lab was shut down. In its place the Research Laboratory of Electronics was created. The RLEwas MIT's first interdepartmental lab.

Building 20 has also been the home of some of MIT's best-known researchers, including linguist Noam A. Chomsky, Harold E. Edgerton ScD '27, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Amar G. Bose '51, and former President Jerome B. Weisner. "Little did I then anticipate that one of our postdocs would soon be famous for his universal grammar' - Noam Chomsky," said Eva Ritter-Walker, a former linguistic informant. "Nor would I have imagined that then EE professor Jerry Weisner... would later become a U.S.president's Science Advisor and an MITpresident," Ritter- Walker add.

Even the walls of Building 20 had a story to tell. The colorful murals along the hallways of Building 20 were the result of a contest between Professor of Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering Jerome Y. Lettvin '47 and Harvard Professor Timothy Leary to observe the effect of LSDon artistic desire, said a pamphlet handed out at the conference.

Paul L. Penfield, Jr. '60, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, chaired the Commemoration Committee which planned the event.