Media Lab extension is glass, steel, open air

$90 million Maki building gives research groups a clean, transparent space

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Professor Hiroshi Ishii, Associate Director of the Media Lab and head of the Tangible Media Group, returns a volley in a game of table tennis during opening-day tours of the Media Lab extension. The table is equipped with object tracking and a projector, which projects fish onto the table that swarm to where the ball lands.
Sam Range—The Tech
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William Lark G from the Media Lab’s Smart Cities Group shows visitors a scale model of the foldable CityCar. The Media Lab extension (E14) can display larger models than the old Media Lab (E15) could accommodate.
Sam Range—The Tech

Three months after researchers started moving in, academia, industry, architects, and the press gathered to celebrate the official opening of the Media Lab extension (building E14). The Fumihiko Maki-designed extension to the Wiesner Building on Ames Street houses the Media Lab, the Program in Art, Culture, and Technology, and individual offices from the School of Architecture and Planning.

On March 5, speakers at the opening ceremony took care to acknowledge the smaller departments that have offices in the new 6-story building — but the $90 million structure can truly only be described as a triumph for the 25-year-old Media Lab.

The building was conceived and designed as the ideal home for the unique collaborative and interdisciplinary culture of the Media Lab. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki sought to capture the idea of transparency in tangible form, creating a building with stunning displays of glass, white, and open air. The double-height labs of E14 are staggered by one story, making movement and communication between lab spaces fluid and effortless.

The new Media Lab is much larger than the Wiesner Building, and according to director Frank Moss, the number of faculty will be growing along with the building. Over the last weeks, the Media Lab has been hosting research presentations from faculty candidates. The Media Lab is “looking to expand the scope and diversity” of its faculty, Moss said.

On opening day, the Media Lab’s open house showed off its groups’ current projects. Labs gave demonstrations of everything from electric cars to prosthetic limbs to Wiimote-enabled electric guitars. Professor Mitchel J. Resnick PhD ’88 and his group, Lifelong Kindergarten, showed off Scratch, a visual programming language composed of blocks arranged on a screen, allowing users to tell stories with animated characters. Scratch has an online community of hundreds of thousands of users replete with animations, remixes and memes. According to Karen A. Brennan G, who works on the project, “we originally intended it [Scratch] for 8-16 year olds, but now it’s being used as an introduction to computer programming at Rutgers, University of WI-Madison, and Harvard.”

In the week before the grand opening, construction crews and Media Lab workers scrambled to finish last-minute construction, repairs, and exhibits.

The visually striking glass elevators rising through the main lobby proved to be troublesome, requiring frequent downtime for repairs. According to Arne Abramson MS ’92, project manager for the Media Lab extension, some glass near the top of the elevator shafts cracked during installation, some of the panes twisting out of the vertical shaft. Construction crews fixed these problems just in time for the grand opening.

According to Gary Kamemoto, head of international projects for Maki, the architects made sure to avoid some of the pitfalls encountered by the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center. For example, the roof is carefully sloped to avoid the buildup of snow and ice, and the back edge is lined with snow guards to prevent melting ice from falling on bypassers. Maki and Associates contracted Canadian firm RWDI to ensure the building is suited for Boston winters.

In designing for MIT, Maki also encountered other difficulties, such as Massachusetts energy codes. Conflicting with the vision of a transparent building of glass, the codes forbid a building from being over 50 percent glass. This is put in place in order to make heating and air conditioning more efficient. Maki found a way around this: he drew inspiration from Japanese bamboo blinds, the influence of which can be seen clearly in the fine metal grating over the exterior of the building. The blinds, along with a subtle dot matrix printed on the windows, allow floor-to-ceiling glass with copious amounts of sunlight.

Mr. Maki cited his choice of color palette: pervasive white with occasional primary color accents. The colors are derived from the work of neoplastic artists, especially Piet Mondrian and his “Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red.” Walking through the light-saturated halls overlooking the glass atrium, one cannot deny that Maki has created a work of art.

Simultaneously, though, The Media Arts and Sciences building is the image of pragmatism, tangibly fulfilling the operation of the Media Lab, with every stairway and glass plane serving to open up communication and collaboration between researchers.