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Happy 20th birthday, Center for Real Estate

At MIT's Center for Real Estate, landmarks are the coin of the realm. So it was no surprise that the center's New Visions 20th Anniversary Weekend was, well, a landmark event. The center, established 20 years ago in the School of Architecture and Planning, is the focal point for real estate education and research at MIT.

"Real estate shapes our societies in powerful ways," said MIT President Susan Hockfield in her address welcoming attendees. She noted that, as an inherently interdisciplinary enterprise, real estate is a perfect MIT subject.

The weekend was launched on Friday, March 18, with a keynote address from Lawrence Bacow, former chancellor of MIT and current president of Tufts University, who is better known to the audience as one of the center's co-founders and a popular professor. He quoted Lenin on revolutions--"After they happen, they seem inevitable"--and noted that the center was a revolutionary proposition at the time it was founded.

The core of the weekend was a conference on "Vision Driven Cities." Conference moderator Dennis Frenchman, head of the City Design and Development Group, explained that vision-driven cities are large, technology-intensive urban development projects, wired for maximum connectivity and adaptability. Three speakers discussed highly visible projects: Canary Wharf, London; New Songdo City, South Korea; and University Park, Cambridge, Mass. The tone for the presentations was set early by Camille Douglas of Columbia University, who opened her talk by saying, "To have true innovation, you have to have a vision, but that vision has to be practical." Later, the ultimate description of what "practical" has come to mean in the 21st century was provided by William Mitchell, head of the Media Arts and Sciences Program and former dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. Mitchell, whose topic was "How Ubiquitous Digital Connectivity Adds Value to Floor Space," observed that broadband access, like indoor plumbing, has become a requirement rather than an amenity. He discussed how wireless technology is subtly shaping the spaces we build. "The paradox of spaces serviced by wireless is that the better the service, the less obtrusive it is," he said. "Architecture, freed from the constraints of 20th century technologies, can humanize space." At MIT, he noted, students have been enticed out of their dorm rooms and into appealing and connected public spaces, such as cafes and lobbies.

The keynote speech was delivered by Phillip Sharp, Nobel laureate, Institute Professor and director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Sharp was introduced by the center's executive director, Marion Cunningham, who posed the question that was in everyone's mind. "Several people have asked why we wanted a molecular biologist to be the keynote speaker at a real estate conference," she said, "and Dr. Sharp was one of them." She went on to explain that "Dr. Sharp's work reflects the best of MIT in all of its disciplines and dimensions." A rapt audience of real estate developers ingested a century's worth of molecular biology along with their box lunches.

The weekend's finale on Saturday night was a black-tie tribute to the center's co-founder and guiding spirit Hank Spaulding. Spauding received the center's new Visioneer Award for "energy and vision over a 55-year career that have left their indelible imprint throughout the real estate industry." Two more Visioneer Awards were presented, one to the Walt Disney Co. for "its visioneering contributions to the real estate industry" and another to Hines, an international development firm, and its founder, Gerald D. Hines, "for their significant contributions to the built environment, including excellence in planning and design, construction and environmental leadership." A surprise award went to the center's own associate director for education, Maria Vieira, "for 20 years of service as an outstanding champion of the MIT Center for Real Estate and a devoted friend to students, faculty and industry" brought a standing ovation for the astonished Vieira. After that, everyone settled in for an evening of relaxing, mingling and dancing. All in all, a weekend worth the 20-year wait.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 6, 2005 (download PDF).

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