Maki makes magnificent Media Lab at MIT




    Fumihiko Maki

    Fumihiko Maki's MIT Media Lab is so exquisite that after you leave and come back to your senses, you realize you have returned to earth. You long to re-enter Maki's building in which you feel a hint of heaven. Or at least that you've made it to some sacred snow-covered mountain top. The ubiquitous white walls inside in all directions reflect the light and charge the space and because almost everywhere you stand you get views in two or three or four directions - up and down and in and out - you feel giddy and light as if you breathe mountain air.

    Mr. Maki likens the ensemble here to the Acropolis and he's not far off. The two atria awash in light and chance encounters operate like agoras; a lecture hall on top is curved like an amphitheater. Around this you find interlocking white cubist planes recalling houses manifesting the sun on Santorini.


    Natural light nips at you in this building, including sunlight from above which lightly pulls you up off your heels. The all-white inner walls create a purity with no boundaries. You dream of limitless possibilities. No hard walls seem to exist anymore. Your thoughts swirl around the atrium and then take flight through the transparency.

    Mr. Maki is quick to point out that his building follows a classical three part division, what he calls podium, piano nobile and crown.

    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts distant exterior
    I wondered if it would catch the transcendental New England light. So many Cambridge and Boston buildings do. H.H. Richardson's red brick at Harvard does, as does his pink Milford granite at Trinity Church in Copley Square. The gray stone of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church merges perfectly with the sunsets here. The wood houses painted pale yellow are gay enough to uplift your spirit even in the cold Massachusetts winter light. The famous all-white New England churches and steeples we know as timeless. But Fumihiko Maki gives us a metallic gray. "It's custom made, it's not Home Depot gray," a contractor who built the MIT building tells us. It's a gray a little more matte than on so many Hondas and Toyotas we see today, or like the shell of the MacBook Pro on which I write. Look at it for awhile and you realize that it reflects and captures light and is porous enough to remain alive.
    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts distant exterior

    If you don't know about MIT's Media Lab, read here. Important for us, it's a department within the MIT School of Architecture and Planning. Well they've been planning and working on Maki's building for twelve years. This is the last in a series of major works begin at MIT in the 1990's - a billion dollar building program funded by the high-tech boom. Remember those days? MIT alone gave us a Sports and Fitness Center by Kevin Roche, Simmons Hall dormitory by Steven Holl, Frank Gehry's Stata Center, Charles Correa's Brain and Cognitive Science Complex, and now to end this run, the best of them all, Fumihiko Maki's Media Lab. 

    It is amazing, transporting and quite satisfying to see a proper "Japanese building" in the U.S., with the compulsive attention to detail and craftsmanship.  With this of course will have to follow proper maintenance.

    This may also be the last great building designed without BIM - building information modeling - the computer software changing the profession of architecture.  Remember this Media Lab was twelve years in the making.  

    On the client team is Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte - also known as the founder of One Laptop per Child. When Negroponte visited him in Japan Maki told him, "I have a warm palette and a cool palette." Negroponte immediately and wisely said this building must be Maki's cool palette. (The University of Pennsylvania chose Mr. Maki's warm palette for their recently opened Annenberg Public Policy Center.) But this a new cool, a new definition of what's "cool" in modern architecture. A building like this will go a long way to reconciling the general public with what contemporary architecture can be. This place works well, it's not crazy forms, it's not brutal, no, it inspires the soul, the mind and the imagination.

    From outside you see in to public galleries. Walk in and you are given calm. (Maki's office did not design the pod on the left, or any of the furniture that is not stationary.  That's a shame, the place would be even more transporting if it were more of a gesamtkunstwerk.


    The calm is nice for now but it's a ruse.  Your heart will soon be pumping fast with excitement. Throughout the building are thrilling views; multi-layered reflections and transparencies.

    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts glass transparency reflection atrium

    This is all about looking and making connections. With colleagues, with the institution around you, with the city and the world.

    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts transparency to city upstairs
    The heart of the building, which the public can also access during the day, is the labs.

    The double height labs came to the Media Lab organically, in their older building designed by I.M. Pei and opened in 1985. It's now adjacent to this one. In there was a performance space, a black box. Eventually it was needed for a lab and turned into one. Its double height worked well. The Media Lab asked Maki to use the idea here.




    The seven labs face each other across a central atrium.

    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts Double height lab ceiling

    Maki staggered the labs around the central atrium. This generates up and down diagonal views and visual excitement, pleasures for the eye. So we look a little harder, and we may even look in new ways. Everyone will see what their colleagues are up to. Cross-fertilization of ideas is the idea.


    That yellow diagonal you see in the rear of the photo above is one of three staircases painted in primary colors - red in the entrance, yellow and blue here in this atrium.

    Pei's building also embeds bright red, yellow and blue - in the exterior and in the interior courtyard. Recent buildings at MIT such as Frank Gehry's Stata Center and Steven Holl's dormitory also use bright primary colors.


    Piet Mondrian - Composition In Yellow, Blue, Red © Tate Gallery

    Maki's partner showed an image of a Mondrian painting and said they borrowed the De Stijl moves from Mondrian. A few primary colors against a background of white.

    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts atrium

    The staggered double height volumes create one of the most exciting interiors in all of modern architecture. It recalls the staggered volumes of Paul Rudolph's Art and Architecture building at Yale, the swirling upwards space in here recalls Maki's own "Spiral" in Tokyo, with some Frank Lloyd Wright at the Guggenheim thrown in for good measure.

    Windows to the stairwell also have a Mondrian, De Stijl and Bauhaus feel,
    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts Mondrian windows white transparency
    and allow you a little peek-a-boo. Remember the building is about opening. Opening your eyes, your mind, your spirit. With a few places to get lost by oneself, to contemplate,
    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts light mystery
    or is she making a cell phone call?  In either case, privacy is important.  Speaking of which, even the rest rooms are beautifully detailed and built and in their way, mysterious.

    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts men's room
    Kudos to Maki and Associates, to local executive architects Leers Weinzapfel and to the general contractor Bond for all making it happen at the highest levels of quality. The cost was 90 million dollars. 163,000 square feet. Six occupied floors. I was told the architects provided three times as many drawings as a contractor would expect to see to build this.


    The stairwells are as well thought out and put together as the restrooms as the atriums as the facade.  Full scale mock-ups of parts coming together were also constructed, in Florida! And Maki and Associates shipped a detailed (and beautiful) model from Tokyo


    to also help explain the seemingly simple but extremely complicated building. In Japan, the architects and the builders start from a position of trusting and valuing each other. Here, we rely more on contracts. But it all came together beautifully.

    G-d is in the details and a lot here is custom made, such as these door frames below

    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts diagonal views office glass
    because they want the offices and all the spaces to maintain those diagonal views. Therefore the door is not at the corner.

    On top, two auditoriums, a function room and an outdoor terrace with inspirational views over Cambridge and the Charles River to Boston. Here Fumihiko Maki and a director of his firm, Gary Kamemoto try to enjoy the view.

    Fumihiko Maki having his portrait taken on the terrace at MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts
    The shot, as seen in the Herald.

    Now take the elevator back down.

    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts entrance elevators

    The light under the two elevators illuminates the entrance space to differing degrees as the cabs move. On the ground floor, which you see into from the street,

    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts rear entrance
    you find two galleries. You're beckoned in. Upstairs, a public cafe. And during the day the public is actually encouraged to gaze at what the folks in the Media Labs are up to.


    The transparency really stands out in Cambridge, Mass. where zoning won't allow more than 50% glass. Hence some fritted glass here, varying experiences of transparency, and through many of the larger windows you peer through aluminum rods, restful, like bamboo screens in Japan.


    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts Amherst front facade
    And they break up the mass.

    Fumihiko Maki MIT Media Lab Cambridge Massachusetts

    Here you really see the influence of Le Corbusier. The pilotis, the ribbon window and especially the rooftop "crown" recall villas of Le Corbusier, who was so influential to the Japanese and others of Mr. Maki's generation. The white interior also recalls Corbusier. Mr. Maki, seen here, likes white.

    Fumihiko Maki portrait MIT Media Lab Cambridge MassachusettsFumihiko Maki received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1993. I interviewed him then on the telephone and hadn't met him until now. Mr. Maki is quite the gentleman. No surprise, given his work. He said his concern as he gets older (born Tokyo 1928) is to maintain high quality in his architecture. He is elegant, kind and committed to quality; he is manifest in his buildings.


    All photos by Edward Lifson 
    © Hello Beautiful!

    More on MIT's Media Lab. 


    Three excellent books by or about Maki's works and ideas:
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