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Oxymorons 101: MIT Planning

Ruth Miller

Few things on campus ignite more controversy than the Stata Center. Is it just art? Is it just ridiculously over-budget? Is it a symbol? Does it provide good public space? How is it pronounced? (I’ve been told that engineers call it “state-ah” while the more humanities-inclined call it “stat-ah”). Is it even nice to look at? Most people can agree on one thing — Frank Gehry is nuts. But is it a good kind of nuts or the bad kind?

I’ve always said that I think Stata looks like a tumor, if buildings were able to grow tumors. Think about it — parts of a normal building started to copy and crowd themselves, but they still retain the physical attributes of a building (brick and right angles). As the building-tumor becomes malignant, the new parts begin to look less and less like their original selves — metal walls, round things, strange windows and funny angles crop up. Finally, as the cancer becomes terminal, it begins sending roots deep underground — seven stories, to be exact — firmly planting itself forever on Vassar Street.

7.012 aside, Stata does look strange. But is it art? I’ve passed myself off as an artist by defining it as something that lets the viewer relate and raise new self-examining questions or ironies. Granted, by that definition pornography is definitely art, and those giant, monochromatic canvases are not. But assuming that ability to self-relate is an actual factor in determining “art,” what does Stata say about MIT?

First of all, the tumor analogy is also applicable to MIT planning. Eons ago, someone decided to put all of campus east of Massachusetts Avenue. Then, all the students were to be housed on West Campus. Now, there’s going to be a graduate student community northwest of campus. All this sounds great, but they’re less “plans” than “something to do until we abandon it half-finished.” That’s how we have a hodge-podged, unplanned campus that the Princeton Review ranks 9th for “campus that is tiny, unsightly, or both.” And to complement a malignant tumor of a campus, we get a malignant tumor of a building. For staging this irony, whether intentional or not, Gehry is a genius.

Secondly, the physical size and landscape dominance of Stata speaks of some of the building’s occupants. Computer Science is the bread and butter of MIT. Enough said. So when MIT wants to land tons of square footage, it gives it to its bread and butter department. And when that department is currently the best and most spectacular department (bear with me), it needs the best and most spectacular building of all time to help convince the world that it’s the best and most spectacular place to send money.

This is all fine and good, but Computer Science has not always been, and will not always be, the core of MIT. In fact, MIT has a brand-new, very impressive Brain and Cognitive Department building (and new Brain and Cognitive University President). Good for Brain and Cognitive Science. But if, hypothetically, Cancer Research needs a new building, and if they want to demonstrate that they are more revolutionary, more important, and more of an asset to the world than Computer Science and Brain and Cognitive, they need an even bigger building.

This isn’t planning, and it produces a landscape of ridiculously large, visually-exhausting, hugely-expensive buildings. I’m curious to see what MIT will look like in 50 years. If every department gets its Stata (and all the dorms look like Simmons), it might be too much for the eye to handle.

Perhaps ironically, one thing that helps offset a barrage of architectural-daring is green space. Flowerchild or not, a little bit of green goes a long way to relax a person. And the sponsors of each individual building could benefit from neighboring some vegetation, rather than another visually-competitive building. But that requires planning and money, two things of which MIT never seems to have enough.

If future architects want to get the most out of their buck, it might just come to them to demand green space. Otherwise, the strongest advocate of flora might be an anonymous hacker with some putt-putt grass.