Let’s play nicely together, shall we?

February 24, 2006

Will architecture inspired by zoos and Teletubbies help ‘antisocial’ researchers work — or will it drive them mad? Kathleen Richardson on the rise of the academic playpen

In the 1951 science-fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still , the American public is thrown into panic after an extraterrestrial craft lands in Washington DC and the robot Gort appears. An expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is called on to restore order, allay fears and reason with the public.

In popular culture, MIT stands for order, rationality and impersonality. In real life, its architectural design and academic structures also reflect these qualities. A peculiarity of MIT is that its buildings, rooms, courses and lecturers are all given codes instead of names. A researcher comments that it is sometimes possible to communicate academic information entirely in code, avoiding the need for words altogether. In light of MIT’s rational, traditional character, it was a surprise to many when the unorthodox architect Frank Gehry was commissioned to design a new campus building, the Stata Centre — or, in MIT code-speak, Building 32.

The Stata Centre is home to MIT’s Laboratory for Information Decision Systems and the department of linguistics and philosophy, as well as its largest group of occupants, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. CSail is the outcome of a merger between two of MIT’s most prestigious departments, the Lab for Computer Sciences and the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Gehry’s architectural experiment was designed to show how physical boundaries can inhibit or facilitate communication. It seems, however, to be based on a notion depressingly prevalent among university architects and planners: the idea that researchers, particularly science and technology researchers, are inherently antisocial and, if left to their own devices, will not interact. Gehry’s response was to take away as many private and personal spaces as possible, to literally force the building’s inhabitants together. He breaks the rules of conventional design and destabilises order and functionality. Inside Stata, the categories of inside/outside, up/down, public/private or open/closed all seem somewhat blurred.

Before Stata was built, most MIT researchers had offices at NE43, otherwise known as 200 Technology Square. NE43 was not a building noted for its distinctive architecture and many disliked it because one side was permanently deprived of natural light after an atrium was built to connect it to a neighbouring building. Its interior was characteristic of the late-1950s early 1960s and MIT itself — hermetic and impersonal — but it was home to innovations as important as the internet (MIT was part of Arpanet, from which the internet evolved). Project MAC and GNU/Linux open-source software. Although it had numerous flaws as a building, many researchers said, they preferred it to the $300 million (£172 million) Gehry structure.

Famously, Gehry drew his ideas for Stata from chimpanzee communities; inevitably, some occupants compare it to a zoo, since the open spaces put many of them constantly on show. Others liken it to a playpen, since its interior is disordered, brightly coloured and noisy, much like a nursery.

One researcher commented: “I think Frank Gehry should stick to designing museums and concert halls, not buildings where people want to do real work and research. I can definitely see how this would be a cool museum. But I don’t see how it’s suitable for people to get work done.”

In Gehry’s boundless place, biotech researchers are obliged to carry experimental material across corridors from one lab to another. Other researchers complain that it is impossible to work because there are so few noise barriers, because they can be viewed from all angles and because some of them end up having to work in corridors.

However, many residents laud Stata as a unique and imaginative with few places in the building being the same. And those who have access to the few private offices with windows in the building enjoy the space significantly more than those who work in openplan areas. What upsets them is the fact that they cannot enjoy either the public or the private spaces because there are no clear boundaries between them. Within days of moving into the new premises in 2004, researchers were boarding up windows. A few months later, they had redesigned spaces, erected plywood barriers and added frosting to windows in an effort to transform their surroundings.

UK universities have also seen recent attempts to refashion and rebrand “outdated” institutional images. The emphasis is on making universities more inclusive, more cross-disciplinary and more environmentally friendly. This has spawned a new trend in campus architecture, following in the footsteps of changes in the US.

But whereas the talk is all of inclusion and allowing public spaces for people to exchange ideas, at its extreme — as with the Gehry building at MIT — new architecture is based on an enduring stereotype of researchers as pathologically antisocial beings who cannot be trusted to socialise and share ideas on their own. Instead, they must be forced together, their private spaces eroded to compensate for a lack of social skills.

The word that best encapsulates this new way of thinking is “merger”. It is a term more commonly associated with takeover bids and business, yet it is one that is used frequently in academic circles to describe a process of assimilation between both departments and universities and it is the idea that lies behind many architectural commission briefs at universities in the US and UK.

Cambridge University alone has more than £500 million-worth of building projects under way. In the past five years, there have been new projects on the Sidgwick Site of the city, home to the arts and humanities faculties; the construction of a new Institute of Criminology, as well as housing developments planned in the west of Cambridge.

In 2003, the university’s Centre for Mathematical Sciences (CMS) opened, bringing together 25 diverse mathematical groups from astronomy to statistics. The idea is to put different subjects together, and the process of homogenisation may spark “creative” sharing of ideas. But there is no coherence in putting such different subjects together. Moreover, creativity is not just about taking ideas from here and there in a cut-and-paste way.

Nevertheless, just as with Gehry’s experiment, the talk is all about creativity and communication. A Cambridge University planning officer told me that public spaces were very important in new building designs to promote cross-fertilisation among researchers, echoing the Stata Centre designer who informed me that the open-plan design was deliberately intended to facilitate interaction and communication.

But does it work? The CMS building, designed by award-winning Edward Cullinan Architects, is composed of several pavilions interconnected by a central area where researchers are encouraged to relax, congregate, socialise and share ideas. The emphasis is away from hierarchies, with students and other staff able to sit side by side with worldrenowned academics such as Stephen Hawking. Indeed, many CMS-based researchers are positive about the building, particularly its calm and serene quality. It is also quite playful — the rooftop, for instance, looks a bit like the Teletubbies landscape, with a grassy green tilting slope. Nevertheless, researchers said the new building had not led to distinctively new patterns of work and nor had it increased the interaction between different groups. As at the Stata Centre, the design achieved the opposite of its aims: boundaries between public and private spaces were so confused that researchers felt unable to use either effectively.

Over the past hundred years, many members of the university community have been at the forefront of moves to remove barriers and blur boundaries. But the design of university buildings should be about enabling academics to do their work and not about forcing them together arbitrarily, based on stereotypes of the antisocial geek or an excessive emphasis on the public space as the main source of academic creativity.

Kathleen Richardson is a research student in the department of social anthropology at Cambridge University and did her fieldwork at MIT. She is researching architecture’s impact on relationships. KR242@cam.ac.uk  

Next week: John Zeisel on the architecture of the mind

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