Three years later: Does Gehry’s Stata Center really work?
Fractals are the Stata. No two places are exactly the same: “The lack of repetition animates the building.” Coffee and whiteboards seem to be everywhere, and people casually join discussions as they navigate their way through the plan: “You run into people you might not have seen in years. I get lost all the time.”
A voice of mild disagreement is that of Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political activist who is the Stata’s best-known inhabitant. Chomsky’s world isn’t fractal. It’s a conventional suite of offices. He says he never meets anyone by accident. He complains about his sloping wall, which means he can’t put bookshelves on it and can’t reach the sunshade in its window. He misses the squirrels that used to run around inside the walls of his old office. He says of the Stata, “I’m fine with it.” But he works mostly at home.
The Student Street is a great architectural space. It’s an indoor walkway that meanders through the Stata’s ground floor. It’s endlessly varied. Sometimes it’s narrow, sometimes wide, sometimes high, sometimes low. Sunlight falls from high windows. Walls angle in and out, often in bright colors.
The Street is like the high street in a British village. Everything seems to connect with it. In the morning, professors climb stairs from the underground garage, stop for a cappuccino, then stride the Street to their elevators (the Street, wisely, is the sole pedestrian way out of the garage). At five o’clock, tots pile out of the day-care center to meet their parents. Undergrads in gym shorts head for the health club and pool. Classes spill regularly from lecture halls and classrooms. Student advocates push petitions or memberships. Visitors stare at the life-size porcelain cow, enthroned atop a coffee shop, that MIT student hackers once, um, liberated from a suburban steakhouse. “There’s a random collection of tables where students flop and study. It’s also a place to promenade.” Students can plug in their laptops almost anywhere on the Street. “It’s full of nooks and crannies where people stop and talk.” The Street is a deliberate reinvention of MIT’s famed “Infinite Corridor,” the drab heart of the old campus. The Street is far better. And like any good public space, it’s open day and night.
The building will never be finished. Says Gehry: “I’m happy when the building is forgiving enough so you can do things to it without destroying it. Put a new light where you want, knock out a wall.” Says a Stata linguist: “Any kind of scientific work is always under construction, always still being built. When you publish a book or a paper it’s never finished, it’s just a step on the way to the next one.”
It occurred to Gehry long ago that his buildings looked more interesting while they were under construction than when they were finished. Ever since, he’s sought ways to give buildings that restless sense of something still happening. Nothing about the Stata feels finished. Since it opened, it’s been in a constant state of minor modification, as the researchers fit it to their needs. The architecture is a metaphor for the science: always an open question, always a work in progress.
Not everyone loves the Stata’s “unfinished” indoor materials, which are raw metal, glass, plywood, industrial lamps, exposed wires, and raw concrete. But they understand the motive, which is that Gehry wanted his building to feel like a warehouse, easy to change and rearrange.
The architecture recruits faculty. MIT’s then-president, Chuck Vest, egged on by the dean of architecture and planning, Bill Mitchell, announced another Stata mission as follows: “I believe that the buildings at this extraordinary university should be as diverse, forward thinking, and audacious as the community they serve. They should stand as a metaphor for the ingenuity at work inside them.”
As a principle, I regard this statement as moronic nonsense. It’s like saying Einstein should have worn a crazy hat to express the fact that his brain was thinking audacious things. But many of the scientists disagree with me. They want to be in a building that proclaims how special they are:
“It’s an icon for this age. It helps attract new faculty because it says we take risks.” “The notion was that MIT needed an icon other than the dome.” “It captures a sense of MIT’s inventiveness and playfulness.” “The building’s funny shape and bizarreness kind of matches up with the work we do. It looks as strange outside as the strange stuff going on inside” “This is world-changing research, and if the building looks like it’s leaping off the planet, so are we.”
There’s lots of wasted space. Another winning move is the amazing amount of unprogrammed space. An efficiency expert would call it a total waste. This is space that isn’t anyone’s turf. It’s everywhere. It’s the stuff of those “village greens” and generous elevator lounges. People grab it when they need it. A space may become the overflow site for some experiment. Or students may clutter it with a newly invented game, or an impromptu discussion or party. They eat and study anywhere and everywhere: “The undergraduates really mill in the building. Some of them walk in out of curiosity and end up working with us.”
Because so much space isn’t under anyone’s direct supervision, the Stata feels free and relaxed. And the openness means that its parts are visible to one another: “People can be seen to be working.” “You can see the building is alive. You can feel part of a community that is working hard. I used to have to go to a conference on the West Coast to find out what the guy next to me was working on.” “There’s connectivity. There are even windows in the fire stairs.”
The skin-to-floor ratio is huge. There’s a lot of exterior wall and roof in relation to the indoor floor area. The most efficient building, as any developer or architect knows, is the one with the lowest such ratio. But that depends on what you mean by efficiency. The more surface you have, the more windows and skylights you can get. Almost everywhere in this huge building, despite its wide floor plates, you feel in touch with the sky and sun.
It looks more like a car smashup than a building. From outside, the Stata doesn’t look like one thing, it looks like a pile of unrelated parts that somehow got compacted together, like a John Chamberlain wrecked-car sculpture. As a result, big as the building is, it doesn’t feel in the least controlling.
And in a move that reminds you of Charles Moore, Gehry scattered a bunch of brightly colored objects, looking like odd-shaped huts, across the building’s numerous roofs. They are conference rooms. The scientists call them by the pet names the architects gave them—the Kiva, the Nose, the Helmet, and so on. In the largest, the Kiva, a third to a half of all visitors (including Gehry) get dizzy from the free-form walls. Some people have adjusted, others not. But most still like the pavilions: “The playfulness animates the environment. It reminds you of the student hacking.”
The Stata has many faults that I’m ignoring, from early roof leaks (at least 50) to lack of acoustic privacy. But the faults pale next to the inventive virtues. I’ll let Gehry have the last word. He likens the Stata to democracy itself and, well, to rabbinical bickering: “There is a growing model of urbanism in America, in the world, and I optimistically believe this has something to do with democracy. There’s a pluralism and a collision of ideas, something almost Talmudic.”