I spotted visitors in the Stata Center today.
They are always conspicuous because they frequently stop and look up toward the hugely high and complicated upper reaches. I wasn’t in a hurry, so I asked them what they thought of the building and showed them around a little. I like to do that, especially if there is a high-school-age kid in tow or indications that the visitors are architects. Sometimes, of course, they run off, thinking, I suppose, that I’ll expect a tip.
My friend Bill Porter, former Dean of the School of Architecture + Planning, told me I was supposed to hate the Stata Center for the first three months I lived in it, so out of respect, I did my duty and hated the raw plywood and undressed concrete pillars so cherished by Frank Gehry.
But then, after three months passed, the ground-floor center of the building seemed to come alive, like busy street. Students work and talk with each other in all the nooks and crannies at all hours, especially late hours. People pull money out of the cash machine. The clueless ask questions at the Information Desk. Past great hacks—a police car, a fire hose attached to a drinking fountain, and a life-size plastic cow—decorate the walls here and there. We have the cafe, the exercise room, the pool, the day-care center, and huge blackboards where you can practice a lecture or work something out with a student or a colleague if you feel like it. And, not to be forgotten, the Stata Center contains the Institute’s best classrooms and lecture halls.
It’s really full of life, like a little city. If you sit down for an hour you might end up greeting a dozen students you know, another dozen faculty walking by, and President Hockfield and Provost Reif picking up something at the coffee bar.
Some say it is the first great signature building on campus since Alvar Aalto and Eero Saaranen did their magic with Baker House, Kresge, and the Chapel more than half a century before. It cost a bundle, it leaks, and the laboratory space on the upper floors deserves a lot of criticism, but as Bill Porter predicted, I don’t notice the plywood anymore and I’m not so irritated by the ugly, awkwardly placed concrete that holds the building up. I actually like the place.