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Building 20 hosts its last class

Last Wednesday afternoon saw the last class ever to be held in Building 20 -- course 11.125 (Observation and Analysis in a Classroom Setting), taught by Professor Jeanne Bamberger, with seven students and two guest teachers present.

The event -- more wake than celebration -- took place in Rm 20C-113. Oreo cookies and homemade banana cake were served, with the guests providing blues on the piano and guitar music in the background.

Professor Bamberger, who has been teaching in Building 20 since 1974, already pines for her old digs. "I miss this freedom to play, to wander, to imagine and to invent that we all -- students and faculty alike -- felt to be the way things were during all those years," she said. "I don't understand how a building comes alive, but it did, and I will miss its hot breath."

Professor Bamberger came to the 20C wing as a faculty member in the Division for Study and Research in Education (DSRE), an early experiment in cross-discipline cooperation. The program shared Wing C with the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy for 10 years. "It was a remarkable thing," said Professor Bamberger. "People were easily in and out of each other's offices, learning from each other."

Professor Bamberger co-taught a course called the Role of Metaphor in Learning and Design with Professor Donald Schon of Urban Studies and Planning, who died last fall. The class analyzed and explored the way a person comes to see things in new ways and how new ideas are generated. Students from many disciplines took the class. "Some people would take it again," Professor Bamberger recalled. "It became a real community." The course evolved into Learning to Design and Designs for Learning after the DSRE was closed.

In the final class on Wednesday, students reported on their teaching experiences at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) during the semester, part of the Teacher Education Program. The guest teachers were CRLS math teacher Maurice Page, who played the guitar and sang, and Bruno Tardieu of the Fourth World Movement, who played jazz piano.

For student Rhonda Salzman, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, Building 20 was a reminder of MIT's philosophy of "work before beauty."

"At the beginning of the term, the building was still quite full of people working, teaching and chatting," said Ms. Salzman. "As spring break neared, signs like 'ROTC has moved' started appearing. Spring break was supposed to be the end, when everyone had to move out."

But Professor Bamberger, whose new office will not be finished until the end of this month, remained in 20C-113. As others departed, the rest of the building assumed an air of abandonment. But her space was a beacon amid the bleakness.

"Professor Bamberger's office/classroom was the only room that continued to have energy in it," said Ms. Salzman. "Only in there did it feel like the building was still alive. But walking through its empty, dark halls was a reminder of how old and worn-out the building had become."

Building 20, erected as a temporary research structure during World War II, is scheduled to be demolished this summer to make way for a new complex to be named for Ray and Maria Stata. Professor Bamberger and her piano will move to Building 4 as part of the new Piano and Computer Music Laboratory.

The new laboratory was in part inspired by the innovative atmosphere in the old building. Professor Bamberger designed 21M.113 (Developing Musical Structures) to provide students who did not play instruments with an opportunity to make music. She had an ulterior motive.

"I hoped by the end of the semester they would have learned to hate computer-made music and want to play real instruments," she said. "Judging from the papers I just got from the last group of students, that message came through loud and clear -- their final projects involved inquiry into live performances (their own and others) of compositions by such old hats as Bach."

Professor Bamberger knew the building she had grown to love was doomed, even before plans to demolish it were announced. She could see the telltale signs.

"I hated to see the old building disintegrating, abandoned, empty, with doors swinging and banging, and at the end, water dripping to form a puddle that we just walked around, trying not to see it," she said.

While Ms. Salzman could not love the old structure as Professor Bam-berger does, she will always cherish the moments she spent in it.

"Once we were in class each time, it didn't matter where we were," she said. "The class could have been in the most terrible room or in the most modern facility, and the conversations would have been the same. The class itself was not harmed nor hindered by its location. It simply was in the most peaceful building on campus.

"Our last class was no different from the rest except for the wonderful music and conversation that filled the halls of Building 20 for the last time."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 20, 1998.

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