Back in Boston for my 25th MIT reunion, I had my first chance to visit the Frank Gehry designed Stata Center. After exploring the building, I came to the conclusion that this controversial building is widely misunderstood. From the exterior, some people say it looks as if a crazy architect dropped a pile of kid’s blocks onto Amherst Avenue. Some locals call it “the building that threw up on itself”.
Many architects love it. In a rave review, Boston Globe columnist Robert Campbell wrote “Everything looks improvised, as if thrown up at the last moment. That’s the point.”
If you read my new book GROUP GENIUS, you’ll know that I believe improvisation is the key to innovation. But you have to go inside Stata to understand its genius: this is a building that’s designed to foster connections, networks, and collaboration. You can’t get very far inside the first floor before you suddenly realize that you can see everywhere. Offices jut out into the four-story atrium at odd angles, and you can look up and see researchers working above you. Just about every office and hallway wall is floor-to-ceiling glass. Climbing up to the fourth floor and walking along the many stairs and crosswalks, when you look back down on those second story offices you discover that they don’t have ceilings; you’re looking down on creativity at work. You stand or sit just about anywhere on those first four floors, and see creative work going on all around you. You feel connected to the community in a way that I’ve never experienced before in a physical space.
On the first floor there are no “hallways” in the conventional sense. Wide thoroughfares cross at odd angles, bringing people into constant contact. There are seating areas in niches designed to encourage spontaneous meetings, and whiteboards are everywhere. You pass a cafeteria, where the tables are placed so that you almost have to walk through the seated diners. A branch of the library offers internet workstations, but not in cubicles: in a separate zone defined by two parallel walls. You get the feeling that you’re in a buzzing bazaar, surrounded by activity.
The glass office walls mean that you have to give up some privacy; but the potential benefit is an increase in collaborative work. The new waist-high cubicles being sold by Steelcase and Herman Miller allow everyone to see everyone else, too. But even the most innovative organization sometimes needs quieter, more private spaces, and the upper floors have meeting rooms and lecture spaces. But these are like pods off to the side of the main flow of activity. And at the Stata Center, the main flow is group genius at work.