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The Boston Globe On MIT’s Stata Center

By Alex Beam

THE BOSTON GLOBE

Sept. 11, 2003

Is MIT’s Stata Center already old before its time?

Will Frank Gehry’s wildly over-budget and years-behind-schedule Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences at MIT prove to be a well-intentioned embarrassment? Signs point to yes.

The still-unfinished Stata Center has been awash in worshipful publicity ever since Analog Devices founder Ray Stata ’58 and his wife, Maria, announced their $25 million cornerstone gift to the institute in December of 1997. At that time the intended completion date was 2000, the announced budget was $100 million, and Gehry’s swirling, off-kilter polished steel, glass, and brick facades still seemed avant-garde. His Guggenheim Museum Bilbao had just opened to almost universal, fawning praise.

MIT brass now peg the budget at $300 million, although a June press release from a Stata Center supplier put the cost at $430 million. The completion date is spring 2004. And what once appeared futuristic now looks like a jumbly rehash of existing Gehry piles.

Guggenheim Bilbao begat Gehry’s similar-looking Experience Music Project in Seattle, whose lines are echoed in the just-opened Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The current, faddish Gehry look has become a victim of self-parody, or at least of parody, to be sure. It is no accident that MIT’s Department of Linguistics, which is slated to move into Stata, displays the famous Onion magazine satire -- “Frank Gehry No Longer Allowed to Make Sandwiches for Grandkids” -- on its Web site (http://web.mit.edu/linguistics/www/stata/stata.html).

MIT officials are fanatically loyal to the Stata building, which has been uncharitably dubbed the Institute’s Big Dig. Bill Mitchell, a longtime friend of Gehry’s and MIT’s outgoing dean of architecture, says of the aforementioned Gehry structures, “Stata is the one with the most complex program and intellectual agenda. I think it may be the best thing he’s done.”

MIT provost Bob Brown has ready explanations for the delays and ballooning costs of the building. For one thing, MIT decided to add a 700-car underground garage to the project after the initial design phase. For another, the above-ground portion of the building has grown from the original 300,000 square feet to a current footprint of 420,000 square feet. Overall, “the project has been tightly managed,” Mitchell says.

The building is the subject of much discussion at MIT, especially among the departments slated to occupy Stata. One of the centerpiece design elements, the Tolkien-like twin towers, evolved in part because two of the prospective tenants -- the Laboratory for Computer Science and the Artificial Intelligence lab -- were not on speaking terms. But during construction, the two labs buried the hatchet and merged, obviating the need for separation.

Looking on the bright side, provost Brown notes that the twin towers “gave us two naming opportunities,” and indeed Bill Gates and MIT alum Alexander Dreyfoos ’54 ponied up an additional $35 million to slap their names on the nine-story structures.

As elsewhere, money is tight at MIT. The Institute plaintively lists about $40 million worth of other “naming opportunities” (the James Woods Linguistic and Philosophy Reading Room? The actor is clearly the school’s most distinguished graduate) on the Stata Web site. [Tech Editor’s Note: Actor James H. Woods ’69 attended but did not graduate from MIT.] Meanwhile, faculty members are receiving e-mails informing them that they may have to pay for essentials such as furniture, shelving, and blackboards. The subject of furniture is a touchy one, because at one point MIT considered using Gehry-designed cardboard furniture inside Stata.

“We still need $200,000 to support furniture,” reads an internal e-mail sent to prospective Stata Center tenants. “I write to ask if you are able to make any contributions to support furniture from your research groups.” The memo goes on to note that one lab’s money for student socials will be diverted to furniture, so “if you are interested in sponsoring a student social, please respond to this message.”

“How’s that for a great university?” opines one prof. “Three hundred million for glitz, and not one cent for blackboards.”

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist.