The building that threw up on itself

Stata Center at MITBack 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. Stata center interiorOffices 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.

7 thoughts on “The building that threw up on itself

  1. Занимаюсь дизайном и хочу попросить автора отправить шаьлончик на мой мыил) Готов заплатить…

  2. Keith, you are very charitable to Frank Gehry.

    The Stata Center, replacing the plain but functional ‘Building 20’ at MIT broke established, quiet, timeless patterns what didn’t need fixing. Basic barrack-style efficiencies and open-plans already allowed people to adapt, thrive, and be creative; build sheds, add extensions onto the roof, and reconfigure walls. Three stories could be easily mounted by stairs, keeping the average desk-bound geek moderately fit.

    My sum knowledge on this comes from:


    1. I worked in Building 20 as an undergraduate, in several different offices: Concourse and UROP come to mind. I was interviewed for the oral archives for the building but I wasn’t famous enough to stay on the Internet site very long! It wasn’t structurally sound, it had to come down. But we loved it!

  3. […] There are a lot of overlaps between this new article and the material I cover in Group Genius, and I’m honored that the authors quote my book extensively. Co-author Greg Brandeau of Pixar contributed many insights about innovation at Pixar, where they live and breathe the message of my book. As this article puts it, “most innovation is generated from the bottom up, by self-organizing teams of talented individuals” (p. 616). The article cites my writings on the Wright Brothers, on creative abrasion and diversity in teams, and they tell similar stories about Thomas Edison, IDEO, Pixar, Herman Miller, Gore, and even MIT’s legendary Building 20. […]

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