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Building innovation into the walls


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The Stata Center is the latest design by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry.
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BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has long been one of the world's top science and technology faculties.

Founded in 1865, MIT's 35 academic departments provide research facilities for nearly 1,000 academic staff with 10,000 students paying around $29,000 a year for the privilege of their tuition.

With 59 Nobel Prize winners among its staff and alumni, MIT's scientists are used to being acclaimed for their work. But it is the Institute's new computer science center that is currently stealing attention from the work going on in the laboratories.

Created by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry at a cost of $285 million, the Stata Center is a Gaudi-esque jumble of colors, contours and huge echoing spaces designed to cultivate original thinking.

Yet the Stata Center also pays tribute to the spirit of its predecessor Building 20, a ramshackle, wooden structure originally built as a temporary facility for military research during World War Two.

Despite having long out-lived its purpose, Building 20 had acquired a reputation as a creative space in which innovation and improvisation were by-products of its poor condition.

"Building 20 was like a barracks but for the next 50 years people didn't feel bad about sawing down a wall somewhere, knocking down a wall, restructuring it," explains robotics expert Rod Brooks, the head of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) which moved into the Stata Center earlier in the year.

"And then when we got this building one of the things Frank Gehry really picked up on was the idea of being able to restructure and reshape. So he really included that idea when he was trying to put this structure together."

"In some senses it's similar in that there's a lot of wood around and there's crowded desks, but then when you look up it's a completely different sort of space. It's much more inspirational -- a cathedral type of space."

The challenge for Gehry was to understand how researchers wanted to work and then to find a way of communicating his ideas to them. After all, artists and scientists have traditionally spoken different languages.

"He talked in metaphors," says Brooks. "He'd say, 'ah, you like to go and work in your private spaces and then come and work together. That's sort of like orangutans, having solitude up in the trees and then coming down to a communal space.'

"If you look around the building now you can see a whole bunch of posters of orangutans which students put up saying, 'we're not orangutans.' But I think he got it right, it just took a while for people to understand the difference between metaphor and hard technical descriptions."

But Gehry's postmodern creation offers more than a striking visual exterior and aspirational feng shui. Whereas MIT's engineering workshops were once built to house the large machines of heavy industry, the Stata Center reflects a vision of ubiquitous computing in which networks are built into the environment around us.

"The researchers in this building tell themselves, tell the world, that they are working outside the box. They are doing the stuff that will change the world," says Brooks.

"And here we have gone and put them in a place which is completely different from the rest of the world. So we're sort of challenging them to live in the environment they say they're creating."


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