Yet the newly opened £200m Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is in fact a cool, rational computer centre.
The architect of the topsy-turvy structure is much easier to guess: it's Frank Gehry, the Californian Royal Gold medallist famous for the Bilbao Guggenheim. The purveyor of crazy architectural styles is an oddly appropriate designer for cutting-edge computer research facilities. Gehry's practice is God's gift to computer-aided design, without which his whimsically sculptural sketches could never be realised in built form. In fact, one of the first events held at the new building was a symposium convened by Gehry's CAD arm, Gehry Technologies.
The 66,000 m2 complex is actually two buildings and four university departments rolled into one. It consists mainly of laboratories for computer science and artificial intelligence, with a department of linguistics and philosophy thrown into the mix. Accordingly, Gehry's brief was "to encourage interaction among a broad group of occupants" and provide "a hub of student activity, a model for innovative, technologically supported education and a modern incubator for new ideas and technology." Gehry's response was to arrange the complex around a crescent-shaped internal mall, which serves as the centre for student interaction. A self-service restaurant, a creche and a sports hall all lead off this covered street. Its three-storey height gives it a light and airy ambience, with large skylights that keep the space well lit, and internal window walls that offer views into the adjoining laboratories. The mall also gives access to the main teaching spaces, comprising a 350-seat auditorium, two tiered lecture theatres and two more flexible flat ones.
The second and third floors are mainly taken up by large double-storey laboratories called warehouses. The moveable partitions of these high-ceiling warehouses make them easily adaptable to changing research needs.
The fourth floor clusters around another communal interaction area. At its heart lies a cafe-pub facing an external courtyard, which in turn opens out into a wide terrace overlooking the world-famous university campus. Out of the outer edge of the terrace, a large hemispherical amphitheatre has been cut that steps down to ground level. The amphitheatre serves as a stairway and community space that may be used for a variety of purposes, such as social gatherings, open-air performances, or simply as a place to eat lunch.
Above the fourth-floor terrace, the rest of the accommodation rises up in the form of two angular towers clad in plain-red facing brick and sheets of shiny stainless steel. The towers house double-height laboratories facing north and single-storey offices facing south. Conference rooms, lounges and informal meeting areas provide yet more opportunities for interaction.
The Stata Center drew funds from various benefactors, including Ray and Maria Stata, after whom it was named, and the ubiquitous Bill Gates. Instead of cash, Gehry donated his richly creative architectural imagination. Who knows, with his devotion to computer-aided design, perhaps he is secretly hoping for an honorary MIT degree in computer science in return.
client Massachusetts Institute of Technology architect Gehry Partners local associate architect Cannon Design structural engineer John A Martin & Associates services engineer RG Vanderweil Engineers landscape architect Olin Partnership main contractor Skanska USA Building