MIT Media Lab Extension: The New Home of Face-Melting Research [MIT Media Lab]

The renowned MIT Media Lab is a place where every project is an amazing, unbelievable glimpse into humanity’s technological future. Now, thanks to a massive $90 million extension, the architecture can match the wondrous excitement created within.

In case you haven’t had the opportunity to swing by this particular block in Cambridge, Massachusetts, here’s what the old Media Lab looks like. It’s still there. In fact, you can see the extension under construction, and marvel at the stark contrast in design.

Mensa Tetris

The six-level, interconnected extension, the work of the famed, award-winning architectural firm Fumihiko Maki and Associates, is like an immense Tetris puzzle. Every piece represents a functional element that is tightly connected to others, giving anyone inside the feeling of being inside a finished puzzle. Maki, himself the winner of a Pritzker Prize, was on hand over the weekend to officially open the MIT Media Lab. (It’s technically been in operation since December.)

As he described it, each piece of this six-level building connects to the next. Balcony offices overlook open air labs and work spaces. Colorful stairways bisect the central atrium, their red, blue and yellow coloring inspired by Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red.

Color aside, the trait hitting visitors in the face before they even walk through the door is glass. Cambridge building codes prevented a 100% glass exterior, so Maki came up with a loophole: bamboo. Inspired by translucent Japanese bamboo screens, Maki covered the remaining exterior with a mix of glass and aluminum tubes.

The result is at the same time beautiful and energy efficient, but also functional. We’re constantly reminded that this is one incredibly open, collaborative working environment.

From the street, especially at night, passers-by can literally see lab work happening within. Maki called this “filtered views,” inspired by the work of the pointillist artist George Seurat (lots of dots!). MIT played a part too, having provided Maki with an image of the Visible Man to further drive home the point that this lab space be open.

But enough architecture? What kind of world-changing stuff can we expect this multimillion dollar, 163,000-sq. ft. incubator to pump out in the future?

Well, if the past is any indication, plenty. The place that saw the beginnings of Guitar Hero, e-ink displays, OLPC and Lego Mindstorms is still driving much of the stuff that gets the Gizmodo editors, at least, sweating profusely in their blogging sweatpants.

The Media Lab will help “plumb the depths of how technology can have a greater impact on industry, society and business,” said Media Lab director Frank Moss.

To net denizens and geeks like you and me, that boils down to robotics, prosthetic limbs, AI and the obligatory Minority Report UI reference that any article mentioning 3D interfaces must include.

Fluid Media

As part of the opening, I was lucky enough to get a tour or some, but not all of the departments at the Media Lab. Departments like Biomechatronics, Cognitive Machines, Fluid Interfaces, Molecular Machines, Personal Robots, Smart Cities, Synthetic Neurobiology. It reads like Stephen Hawkings’ shopping list.

In any event, Fluid Media was one of the labs I got to tour first.

If you know Arduino, you’d be at home here, alongside the luminescent wallpaper, smart fabrics, “sewable computing” and inexpensive 3D fabricators that had me waxing nostalgic about Cory Doctorow’s Makers.

Above: No, not coasters or doilies. Sewable computers. If you aren’t wearing your mp3 player now, you will be soon.

Kindergarten Kids, Forever

The sense of play felt throughout the Media Lab’s open spaces owes itself to the students, of course, but it’s certainly assisted by the design. Moss called the atmosphere “serious fun,” in a building where bright minds “design by serendipity.” It’s pretty spot on. One lab leads into the other, encouraging social and professional interaction. Artists huddle with biomechanical engineers. Sometimes the union is short-lived, and sometimes it’s Guitar Hero.

But it’s serious fun: There’s a mission here, one that’s produced limbs for soldiers maimed in war; helped children learn robotics with crazy new Lego software; and created a paint brush, simply called I/O, that captures the essence of whatever you point it at—visual, musical or otherwise.

Even so, the fun, relaxed environment is apparent in this lab that director Moss says will change our futures. He and others, like Lifelong Kindergarten Department grad student Karen Brennan, were genuinely having fun while working with these high concepts and brain-bending experiments. The future, wild as it will be, looks pretty fun. Seriously.

Image credits: The Visible Man is a well-known see-through anatomy model from Craft House Corp. Composition in Yellow, Blue and Red from Wikipedia.

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