Cambridge, Massachusetts

In the world of architecture, it isn’t unusual for projects to fall victim to shifting priorities or changing financial circumstances and subsequently stall or be shelved indefinitely. When, and if, such schemes are resurrected and built, they sometimes seem dated or irrelevant. But for the new Media Lab building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, realized more than a decade after architect Fumihiko Maki was given the commission, the long hiatus between design and construction has not made the project—which has an unusual degree of sectional complexity—any less appealing.

Maki’s firm, with Boston-based Leers Weinzapfel Associates as architect of record, was hired in the late 1990s, when the digital revolution was in full swing. The university wanted to expand the Media Lab, responsible for several inventions for wireless networks, field sensing, and Web browsers, into a new structure connected to its original home on the Cambridge campus: the I.M. Pei–designed Wiesner Building, completed in 1985.

But when corporate donations dried up in the wake of the dot-com bust, the university mothballed the completed working drawings. Then, three years ago, after MIT secured new funding sources and the architects scaled back the project with changes that included eliminating basement research space, contractors broke ground. The $90 million, 163,000-square-foot building opened in March.

The program called for a facility about one-and-a-half times larger than Wiesner to house the Media Lab and facilities for a range of art, design, and technology-related programs in the School of Architecture and Planning (of which the Media Lab is a part), but on a plot about 25 percent smaller than that of the lab’s existing home. Gary Kamemoto, a Maki and Associates director, jokes that the university chose the Tokyo-based firm since it was accustomed to designing buildings for tight urban sites in Japan. But MIT’s goals were larger than squeezing as much program as possible into a compact package. From the Pritzker Prize–winning Maki, whose designs are known for their clarity and attention to detail, the Media Lab hoped for a structure that would promote visual and social connectivity, both among its research groups and with the outside world. The Media Lab wanted a building that would support its cross-disciplinary work, which runs the gamut from digitally controlled prosthetics to folding electric vehicles to devices that help the autistic communicate.

Maki’s response was to create a deceptively straightforward plan diagram. Within the building’s steel-framed structural grid, which resembles a tic-tac-toe board, research laboratories flank a central atrium. But the three-dimensional reality is much more complex. The laboratories, seven in total, are double height and vertically offset from each other. The atrium is not a single space, but a set of two interlocking voids that span five of the building’s six levels. This Rubik’s Cube–like assembly, along with generous interior glazing, creates unexpected horizontal and diagonal sight lines.

In an inversion of the typical organization of academic research buildings, the Media Lab has those facilities that will be used regularly by the wider university community on the top floors, including a café, a 100-seat amphitheater-shaped auditorium, a multipurpose hall, and a skylit space for receptions. This configuration makes the most of the site, just a block from the Charles River, and the building’s potential to capture views of the water and the Boston skyline.

The spatial arrangement also draws visitors, as well as regular occupants, through the entire building. Some will arrive from the north, through Wiesner, to which the new structure is connected on several floors. But most will enter at either the southwest or the southeast corners, and traverse a light-filled lobby that doubles as a gallery. To reach the upper-level public spaces, they can then ascend in glass-enclosed elevators or travel through the interconnected atria by way of bridgelike walkways and a series of stairs boldly painted and subtly sculpted to punctuate the otherwise Minimalist space.

The circulation route from the entry lobby to the top floor takes lab users and guests past the atelierlike workshops, which vary from 5,000 to 8,500 square feet but share the same basic configuration. Each has an open area, roughly 40 foot square and about 21 feet tall, surrounded by mezzanine-level glass-fronted faculty offices. All the research spaces have at least one exterior exposure, entirely glazed, in addition to the glass partitions between the labs and the adjoining social spaces.

Precisely detailed screens of aluminum pipe louvers help designers comply with local energy codes that limit facade area to no more than 50 percent glass. The elements, which shade insulated low-E glazing, mitigate heat gain. They also allow occupants to see the surroundings while providing passersby with views of the activity within, especially at night.

The portions of the facade enclosing more public programmatic elements are also almost entirely glazed, but Maki has given those areas a different treatment. They are clad in low-iron glass with a fine ceramic frit. The two basic glazing systems, along with extruded-aluminum cladding for areas that required opacity, identify different interior uses while endowing the elevations with an elegant restraint. The only overtly expressive exterior elements can be found at the crown, where Maki has enclosed the lecture hall in an aluminum-clad cylinder and has gently curved the edge of a sloped roof and extended it to shelter a top-floor terrace.

The Media Lab project has the level of refinement and thoughtful planning that is Maki’s hallmark. But it is not delicate or fragile. Instead, it exudes an alluring but quiet strength that holds its own amid its occupants’ creative clutter. “It is not a precious building,” says Frank Moss, the Media Lab’s director. “It does invite us to come and live in it.”

Down to the Details

If any one element can be said to define the elevations of Fumihiko Maki’s recently opened Media Lab building at MIT, it would be the screens that veil the almost completely glazed atelierlike workshops. The shading devices (right) were the design team’s response to local energy codes limiting the facade area to no more than 50 percent glass. And, as is characteristic of Maki’s projects, these required components are exactingly detailed. “The screens were essential, but they [had to] have a certain dignity,” the architect explains.

The shading system, designed in collaboration with curtain-wall suppliers YKK and Cupples (now part of Enclos), is made up of 3⁄4-inch-diameter extruded-aluminum pipe louvers, spaced 1 1⁄2 inches on center. The louvers arrived at the site preassembled in 4-foot-wide, 26-foot-6-inch-tall panels, allowing quick installation — each face of the building required about three days, according to Gary Kamemoto, a director of Maki and Associates.

One of the more challenging aspects of the system’s design was finding logical points in the structure on which to attach the panels, says Kamemoto. “Because of the double-height spaces, we didn’t have structure where we wanted it.” The team resolved the problem by hanging the panels from the floor slabs with galvanized-steel outriggers that in turn support a 3-foot-wide maintenance catwalk. Intermediary Y-shaped stainless-steel struts help transfer wind loads to extra-deep reinforced mullions.

In addition to the louvers, the Media Lab had two other primary enclosure systems: the glazed curtain wall and a corrugated aluminum panel for areas requiring complete opacity. The combination of the three created a variety of cladding conditions, all of which were explored in two full-scale mock-ups built before the Media Lab was constructed. The first, a 30-foot-tall and 25-foot-wide portion of facade, was erected at a third-party laboratory in Florida, where its vulnerability to water and air infiltration, and its deflection, lateral drift, and vertical displacement were assessed. The second, an approximately 10-foot cube, was built on an MIT parking lot to help contractors better understand how the facade system would be installed on the actual building. This mock-up included conditions such as one element overlapping another, corner pieces, and termination components. The small structure “captured every single detail,” says Kamemoto.  —J.G.

Inset Photo © Anton Grassl/Esto