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Architects trade views on Stata Center design

Two of the hallmark design elements of the Stata Center: a polished surface and, in its reflection, an irregularly shaped exterior wall.
Two of the hallmark design elements of the Stata Center: a polished surface and, in its reflection, an irregularly shaped exterior wall.
Photo / Donna Coveney

William Welles Bosworth's neoclassical buildings have anchored MIT since 1916, providing a majestic approach to the Institute first from the Charles River via Killian Court and later from Massachusetts Avenue (via the Rogers Building and Lobby 7). Now with the new Stata Center, the campus has an impressive new entrance at the corner of Vassar and Main streets.

Architects and administrators discussed the Institute's new postmodern portal at the annual Max Wasserman Forum on Contemporary Art on May 8, which dealt with "The University as Patron of Cutting-Edge Architecture."

Before architects Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi stepped into the ring, President Charles M. Vest recalled his first drive down Vassar Street, which he called "a traumatic experience."

"I couldn't put together what I saw on Vassar Street with what I knew to be true about this great institution," said Vest, who added that during one of his early visits he stayed on the top floor of the Marriott Hotel. As he looked out over the campus, the rectangular buildings pinned by the two flagpoles reminded him of a naval base, he said.

Still, he didn't expect campus construction to play such a major role in his presidency. The impetus for that came in 1998 with the Report of the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, which recommended a new focus on community and campus life. Since then, MIT has constructed 25 percent of the buildings now on campus. The plum is Gehry's Stata Center.

Gehry, who said he was raised on Talmudic discussions with his grandfather, compared that discussion process with design--"a constant inquiry that hones your thinking until sooner or later you come up with an essence. In the Talmud, that is conveyed with the Golden Rule. I believe I'm doing that with my buildings. I want to be a good neighbor by respecting the work of the architects around me, some of which I like and some I don't like," he said.

Each piece of the "collage of parts" that makes up the Stata Center has a precedent in Cambridge, Gehry said. He described it as "pieces of buildings collaged on one building, helping to break down the scale and humanize it."

The interior is "unfinished and open-ended, so the rugged individuals who inhabit it will intervene and bring their stuff in. Over time, this building will become theirs. I think the building is strong enough to handle it," he said.

Before offering a more traditional architectural perspective, Venturi asked the audience to forgive him if he sounded "grouchy about his good friend Frank." Then he launched into a series of not-so-flattering comments about Gehry's work.

"I would think it's important that an institution should employ 'cutting edge' as a product and not as an image. Campus as community is not a stage set. 'Cutting edge' should be determined by viable action and not as architectural form. Research needs a setting where dramatic change happens and is not itself dramatic change--not 'form follows function,' but 'forms accommodate function.' It is important to create identity, but the iconic quality should not dominate," said Venturi.

"We do this all the time," interjected Gehry, referring to his interactions with Venturi. "When he rags on me, his son finds out and makes him call me to apologize. Today," he turned to Venturi, "you sound like you're fitting well into the resurgence of fundamentalism"--causing Venturi to put his face in his hands and laugh.

"When I go to Bilbao--which, by the way, respected the budget, listened to the clients and paid for itself in its first eight months of existence--little old ladies come up and touch me," Gehry said to laughter. "If I make 10 more buildings like [the Stata Center], it's not going to destroy the fabric of America, and it might be positive.

"What I treasure most about designing is the relationship with the client. I'm gonna miss that. I'll have post-partum blues," Gehry said.

Steven Holl, who designed Simmons Hall, was unable to appear on the panel because of illness. Professor William J. Mitchell, architectural advisor to President Charles M. Vest, moderated the forum.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 19, 2004 (download PDF).

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