Building 20

In the latest (January 30th) New Yorker, an “Annals of Ideas” piece by Jonah Lehrer, “Groupthink: The brainstorming myth”, on brainstorming as a spur to creativity (the evidence indicates that brainstorming without criticism is ineffective; that successful collaborations tend to involve people with strong social connections to one another; and that physical proximity enhances creativity). Lehrer then turns to the example of Building 20 at MIT, a famed “magical incubator” of innovation.

Building 20 (1943-98) was in fact where the linguists hung out at MIT in my days — where the department office and faculty offices were located, where Halle and Chomsky had their (adjoining) offices, and where the grad students shared a big room — and it also housed the Laboratory for Nuclear Science, the Acoustics Lab (which gave rise to the Bose Corporation), the machine shop, ROTC, a piano repair facility, a cell-culture lab, the Ice Research Laboratory, the Tech Model Railroad Club, offices for many people in the Research Laboratory of Electronics, and much more. Not bad for a temporary wooden building hastily thrown up during World War II to house MIT’s Radiation Laboratory.

When the building was (finally) demolished, my Stanford colleague Tom Wasow salvaged chunks of it to give to those of us who had worked in it. Mine is mounted in a box in my living room.

Lehrer reports on Linguistics in Building 20:

According to [Morris] Halle, he was assigned Building 20 [in the 50s, for the new linguistics program] because that was the least valuable real estate on campus, and nobody thought much of linguists. Nevertheless, he soon grew fond of the building, if only because he was able to tear down several room dividers. This allowed Halle to transform a field that was often hermetic, with grad students working alone in the library, into a group exercise, characterized by discussion, Socratic interrogation, and the vigorous exchange of clashing perspectives.

It was an unlovely, and at times uncomfortable, building, but it was a great place to be.

Here’s Building 20 as it is usually depicted, from its official main entrance on Vassar Street:

But I almost never came at it from this direction. Instead, I threaded my way through other buildings from the main entrance to MIT (on Mass. Ave.), which were connected to one another by passageways. Here’s an aerial view (Building 20 is the low building with four wings coming off a long wing.

MIT’s archives have an account of the building’s history, here. The Wikipedia short version:

Building 20 (18 Vassar Street) was a temporary wooden structure hastily erected during World War II [opened in 1943] on the central campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since it was always regarded as “temporary”, it never received a formal name throughout its 55-year existence. The three-floor structure housed the Radiation Laboratory (or “Rad Lab”), where fundamental advances in physical electronics, electromagnetic properties of matter, microwave physics, and microwave communication principles were made. After the Rad Lab shut down after the end of World War II, Building 20 served as a “magical incubator” for many small MIT programs, research, and student activities for a half-century before it was demolished in 1998.

Then in its place came a Gehry-designed building, the Stata Center:

The Ray and Maria Stata Center … or Building 32 is a 720,000-square-foot (67,000 m2) academic complex designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The building opened for initial occupancy on March 16, 2004. It sits on the site of MIT’s former Building 20 … (link)

Quite a different matter from the building it replaced:

Note that the Stata Center is a high-rise in comparison to the low-slung (three-storey) Building 20. The horizontal layout of Building 20 encouraged chance meetings and interactions. Always a good thing.

5 Responses to “Building 20”

  1. Victor Steinbok Says:

    Building 20 was also known for a couple of other oddities. First, according to MIT lore, it was the birthplace of the radar. That’s not quite accurate, given the historical timeline, but the people in the building had been responsible for quite a few inventions. Second, one of the wings (the four parallels that can be seen in the aerial photo–IIRC, buildings 20B through 20E, as opposed to the main hall, which is Building 20A) housed the MIT wind tunnel. Third, one of the best known residents (denizens) of Building 20 was Jerry Lettvin who passed away fairly recently (last year).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Ah yes, Jerry Lettvin, of Lettvin / Maturana / McCullough / Pitts, “Frog’s eye … frog’s brain”). In working my way from the “main building” (which incorporates Buildings 1 – 10, in a confusing-to-outsiders symmetric way) to Building 20, I regularly went by Jerry’s office, and sometimes chatted with him. And of course we knew his wife, Maggie.

      Also ran into Warren McCullough. It’s still amazing to me that MIT gave support and space to these (apparent) oddballs. (Richard Stallman still has office space there.)

      Didn’t know Jerry had died — only last April. Should have memorialized him.

  2. Steve Anderson Says:

    Another story about early building 20. Morris once told me that when he and Noam were first using their offices there, one summer it was quite hot and they decided to put in air conditioners — window units, of course. But the Powers That Were at the Institute told them that wouldn’t.be allowed. Problem? Power capacity, you say? No, they were told it would spoil the line of the building.

  3. The flying butterfly Says:

    This is a beautiful and well written article, and the idea of comparing the older project to its current replacement is very nice.

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