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Masterpiece or Junkpile? Stata Opens Its Doors

By Frank Dabek

STAFF REPORTER

MIT’s newest building, the Ray and Maria Stata Center, will be officially dedicated today.

William J. Mitchell, professor of architecture, said that the building, designed by Frank O. Gehry, is part of a wave of building on campus that is “reclaiming MIT’s great tradition of architectural innovation.” Provost Robert A. Brown said he hopes that the many open spaces inside the $280 million building, which he called the “new entrance to MIT,” will draw students out and create the opportunity for “different forms of learning.”

The building’s residents have their own opinion, however. Natalia H. Gardiol G spoke for the majority (or possibly a very vocal minority) in an e-mail: “noisy. complicated. orange carpet. hello? ... I want my money back.”

The responses of building residents to their new space paint the early history of Stata as one of good intentions gone awry. A vision of collaborative spaces has become, for many students, a reality of working with little or no privacy. Gehry’s name makes it easier to attract funding, but it also attracts “visitors” who turn a workplace into a tourist attraction. The building’s unique design will likely win awards, but it also makes finding the stairwell a non-trivial task. All of this in a building that came in at three times its original budget.

This is not to say that no students are happy with the new building. “I love the Stata center. Beautiful, interesting, artsy,” wrote Bryan A. Ford G. A highly informal poll has “hate it” far outpacing “love it,” however. One is left to wonder where vision and reality diverged.

Stata planning began in 1996

Planning for the Stata Center began in 1996, and the project was announced in January of 1997. At that time, MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (the two laboratories have since merged to form the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) were slated to move to the building in 2000. The budget projection at the time of the announcement was $95 million.

When Building 32 (Stata’s name under MIT’s numeric system of naming buildings) was finally occupied this year, 78,000 cubic yards of concrete had been poured around countless feet of #18 re-bar (the largest manufactured), one million bricks had been laid by hand, 1,000 students, faculty, and staff moved their belongings in 16,000 orange crates, and the center’s budget had ballooned to $283.5 million dollars.

MIT asked for ‘generic’ design

Christopher J. Terman, a senior lecturer in electrical engineering and computer science, found himself in the position of liaison between MIT and the architects constructing the building. As one of the representatives of the new building’s clients, Terman ended up as one of MIT’s main contacts with Gehry. Part of his job, he said, was to translate from an architect’s “weird language” to language that engineers could understand.

Gehry’s approach to the problem of designing Stata was to determine the necessary qualities of the space, not to solve particular design problems, Terman said. The building’s design process was “not a case of the customer being right,” he said, but rather a case of the “customer needing to broaden their horizons.”

MIT asked that the design of the building be generic instead of “shrink wrapping the space” around the particular needs of current faculty. “It’s going to take a while to figure out how to make these spaces work for us,” he said.

In his dialogue with the Stata Center’s future occupants, Gehry pushed for more radical designs. When he first met with MIT representatives, Gehry said that he correctly predicted that they would ask to replicate their former offices in the new space without realizing that was what they were asking for. The design process asked “how do we get away from this,” he said.

Initial designs (including one based on a traditional Japanese house) were rejected because faculty “wanted flexibility but didn’t want to be subject to that kind of invasion of privacy.” Other designs that didn’t make the cut were based around the idea of how orangutangs live and a colonial mansion.

The Stata Center will be a success, Gehry said, if he was able to “interpret what [the occupants] were talking about in a way they never expected.” The building, if it is a success, should come as a surprise to occupants and “engender a kind of pride.”

Gehry’s desire to push the envelope of comfort may be responsible for unhappiness among current residents, but the building’s planners are optimistic. All of the problems “are very solvable,” Terman said. Mitchell said that he expected discomfort following a “culture change.” “The building is an experiment,” he said. “I suspect that people will discover that they like more openness,” he said.

While Gehry was not aware of the complaints of new occupants, he suggested that the building could be adapted to address them. “You can do it, but you lose something,” he said; changing the building would “give up a sense of community.” Gehry also suggested that residents may adapt to their new surroundings. If those that don’t like the new space can’t accommodate themselves, then the building is a failure, he said.

Students complaints many, varied

An unscientific poll of students and staff subscribed to a a CSAIL-wide mailing list (csail-discuss@csail.mit.edu) has revealed a litany of complaints about the new building, many of which fly directly in the face of the design goals.

Encouraging collaboration was a major goal in designing the Stata Center. Mitchell said that the series of building projects that includes the Stata Center was intended “not just to meet space needs,” but to “rethink the idea of a campus.” Stata was built to encourage a “learning community,” he said. The planners “recognize that in the end research is about discussion ... [and] encounters in the corridor.”

This goal is reflected in the building’s numerous open spaces, many of which serve as office space for graduate students. Gehry said that he followed “a simple formula” to draw students out of offices and encourage collaboration: add “a few funny colors and bring in some natural light.” “If the building seems weird and strange ... it is related to” the design goal of encouraging collaboration, he said.

Many say open spaces lack privacy

The lab’s many open spaces have led, among some, more to a feeling of lost privacy than a noticeable gain in collaboration. Leigh Deacon, a laboratory administrative assistant, wrote that her location in one of the Stata Center’s open spaces was inferior to her office at LCS’s previous location in Technology Square. “My office at Tech Square might have been a bit of a hole... but I loved it. It was my hole. I could close the door,” she wrote. Another assistant also commented on the loss of privacy that results from working in such spaces: “I feel like I lost something very important -- a sense of my own space -- and a feeling of importance.”

Many graduate students working in open spaces, intended to increase collaboration, have voiced concerns about privacy and distractions. Students reacted to open spaces that shared glass walls with hallways by painting, blocking, or papering the glass.

Nicholas E. Matsakis G compared working at his desk in Stata to working in Project Athena’s “fishbowl” cluster that opened onto the Infinite Corridor. Working in the fishbowl was less of a problem, Matsakis said, because the fishbowl was clearly public space with no expectations of privacy or ownership, unlike an office.

Others are pleased with the new building. Graduate student Nicole S. Immorlica’s impression of the new building is “infinitely better” than Tech Square. “Just walking into Stata makes you smile.” Deacon said that being on campus is advantageous.

The Stata Center’s price tag has also raised eyebrows. Terman said that the building’s budget was a “series of half-yearly crises.” Each time the budget had to be reevaluated, the designers had “worked hard to get [the building] the way you want and now you need 30 percent less of it,” he said. Gehry said that in designing the building, he responded primarily to client requests, but also to “stupid things like budgets.” Gehry said that the building’s final design was as far from a “brick box” as the budget allowed.

Stata’s unique design also posed a series of challenges to those constructing it, Terman said. Several contractors went out of business before the work they were hired to do was completed. Mistakes also caused delays; for example, problems with the poured concrete walls of an elevator shaft necessitated jackhammering away a corner of the shaft and re-pouring it, he said.

RFID security leads to debate

The Stata Center is equipped with several layers of physical security: reaching an office requires passing through several doors that open only via MIT ID cards equipped with radio frequency identification tags. The added security measures, unprecedented on MIT’s open campus, spawned a lengthy debate. Research Affiliate and well-known privacy advocate Richard M. Stallman said that the system of locked doors “embodies the threat of pervasive computing: pervasive surveillance, such as no tyrant had the ability to impose in the past.”

Mitchell said that the Stata Center will be open to the public but that it will be necessary to find a compromise between security and accessibility. Electronic security provides the “flexibility to achieve security and openness,” he said. Debates about how to improve both security and privacy are to be welcomed and are in the spirit of MIT, he said.

Despite added security, unwanted visitors appear to be a problem. Gehry said that a sign of a building’s success is that “the world comes to peek at it.” Administrative Assistant Mary M. McDavitt said that she feels like “the ‘unofficial’ information desk” on the seventh floor of the Gates tower. Answering questions from visitors makes concentrating difficult, she said.

The divergence of opinion that Stata invokes may be partially explained by the fact that there are so many different types of offices in the new building, some of which are better than others. As Gardiol commented: “NE-43 was wretched; but, at least everyone was in the same boat. In Building 32, some folks got the plums, and others got the smushed plums.”