The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 35.0°F | Overcast

Historical Board Ready to OK Fall Demolition of Building 20


Gabor Csanyi -- The Tech
Renowned architect Frank O. Ghery heads the architectural team designing the new Stata Complex, which will be built on the site where Building 20 now stands.

By Douglas E.Heimburger
Editor iN Chief

A permanent fixture in the 55 year history of the temporary wartime structure known as Building 20 has been the fleeting nature of attempts at its demolition.

Tomorrow, however, the Cambridge Historical Commission is set to clear the way for the Institute to obtain a demolition permit for the building, which has been slated for demolition ever since it opened late in 1943 as a temporary facility.

Later this year, a protective cocoon will encase the building while demolition workers remove the exterior asbestos walls and carefully take the facility apart, said O. Robert Simha MCP '57, director of planning.

Next year, construction will begin on the Stata Complex, which will eventually house the Laboratory for Computer Science, Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Lab for Intelligent Decision Making and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

When complete in 2001, the new 320,000 square foot building will also house a new dining facility and a medium-sized lecture hall, Simha said.

Commission discusses demolition

At a public hearing held in Building 68 last week, the Commission discussed the life of the building and also learned about the new building to rise on the site.

After touring the building, now emptied except for one researcher who is still waiting to move into new renovated space on campus, the Commission heard from renowned architect Frank O. Gehry about plans for the new building.

Currently, Gehry's team is attempting to determine how best to design the interior space for researchers and students in the building, Gehry said.

The plans for the building, which will be completed over the next six months, will likely feature a combination of "warehouse space"where labs spread out over buildings with large, expansive floors and "tower space"where zones of offices and labs surround a central core, much like in modern office buildings, Gehry said. Rooftop cafeterias and meeting spaces are also being considered.

"The good thing about Building 20 was its people,"Gehry said. The flexible space of the building along with its temporary status made for a good research home. "Whatever the [new] building is, it has to be forgiving like that."

Currently, the architects are looking at items such as lighting, sun control, partitions and the like to create flexible space for the researchers. They have created models based upon housing concepts such as the 19th century Japanese house, where room partitions can be opened and closed to form large or small spaces on demand, Gehry said.

Gehry's team is also creating basic plans for a future "learning center," where undergraduate classes could be centralized, Simha said. The facility, which is a priority of President Charles M. Vest, would combine several large lecture halls with smaller recitation rooms and teaching laboratories, Simha said. It would feature the newest audio-visual facilities and would also include provisions for distance learning, Simha added.

Plans are also being drawn up for a long-term expansion to Building 68, which will complete the section of campus, Simha said. The current East Garage will be demolished before 2001 and replaced across Albany Street, creating space for the new buildings.

Current building praised

The wood-frame building, which violated fire codes even when it was built, was designed "in an afternoon"by Donald Whiston '32. During the war, allied scientists perfected Radar within its flexible space.

After the war, while MITapplied again and again for extensions to its occupancy permit, the building served a variety of purposes. During the Vietnam War, anti-war protesters held stake-outs in the offices of Professor Noam Chomsky and in the ROTCfacilities.

More recently, the facility fell into disrepair. "The threat of demolition has loomed over this building for decades,"wrote Sarah L. Burks, a property administrator for the commission. As a result, maintenance of the windows and exterior walls has been sacrificed recently.

Between 1986 and 1991, significant amounts of asbestos were removed from the building. Nonetheless, asbestos shingles still cover the sides of the building, and most of the floor tiles and pipe insulation is made of asbestos.

Commissioners expressed concern over the lack of final plans presented at the meeting. Usually, the Historical Commission delays the demolition of buildings until final plans can be considered.

"It seems there's an emanation from this old place that inspires people,"said Commissioner M. Wyllis Bibbins, who urged that MITconsider preserving some of the current building as a historical artifact.

Other members on the commission disagreed. "I'm more convinced that it is not going to be useful in the way it was"earlier this century, said Commissioner Jo M. Solet. "I would be ready to see Building 20 go."

The commission was also offered the opportunity to participate in the development of plans for the new site, which will definitely include an area dedicated to the activities of the old Building 20, Simha said.

"It's a real leap of faith for us"to allow Gehry the flexibility he has been offered, Simha said. Gehry is "working hard to bring us something new, novel, and nifty" in the new $100 to $120 million building.