Stata at Five

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Photo: Emily Corbato

The Ray and Maria Stata Center is a soaring, disorienting, quirky and controversial place to be. Concocted of glass, plywood, brick, cement, industrial steel, titanium, and a palette of paint directly out of Dr. Seuss, its winding staircases, tilted walls, and unexpected corners evoke a playful spirit of exploration that has in many ways been infectious. The building is home to the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, its largest occupant and one of the leading laboratories in the field. As one begins to look closer, a surprising picture emerges of how the building has shaped the lab that would give it its character.

According to former lab director Rodney Brooks, the move was an enormous factor in the original merger. “As we started trying to figure out space, people wanted to sit next to people from the other lab, and we started thinking about why, exactly, we were still two separate entities.” The two labs he refers to were the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Lab for Computer Science. Born from Project Mac in 1963 under the leadership of Robert Fano, the two labs split apart later in the decade as research and political interests began to diverge.

Thirty years later, however, in the twilight days of the time at Tech Square, it got harder and harder to make a case for why the labs should remain separate once they moved into their new shared home. As current director Victor Zue puts it, there was a decision to organize “logically instead of historically.” The reshuffling meant that old, entrenched barriers to collaboration had been eradicated: groups that were working on similar problems from different direction had no reason not to pool resources and interests. The merge, finalized in July 2003 on the 40th anniversary of Project Mac, found its sea legs upon the transfer to the new space.

With a fresh, uncharged geography, patterns of use arose from scratch. The ways in which this redefinition has painted itself on the space can be seen throughout the building. Tiny vignettes of social life and communal living can be seen in tea kitchens across Stata; pastiches of mechanical projects, various plants and aquariums, and student personality spill riotously through the center of nearly every lab’s domain. And the vision that Gehry had of researchers’ perpetually running into each other and generating new ideas has truly taken wing.

That’s a far cry from the situation on the ground before the move. Graduate student Aaron Adler jokingly refers to the location on Tech Square as an “outpost in the wilderness,” but conversations with researchers and students alike make it clear that the psychological benefits of being an integrated – and integral – part of campus are not at all exaggerated. Far from being an outpost, the Stata Center itself has become a destination: for recreation, innovation, and collaboration on a varied and energizing multitude of levels.

In a space with such a complex physical framework, whither the research? The answers point to a shift in the way people work together in their new home. The unusual configurations of space means that seating is frequently a la carte. Student desks are clustered around the edges of open areas looking directly at the projects in which they are engaged. In a row of offices, one door might contain a handful of graduate students, and the next one down could be the head of the directorate.

This free-flowing physical arrangement led most immediately to two things: increased collaboration and a refreshingly non-hierarchical organization, helped by the informal open door policy employed in most of the building. “Clearly there are professors, PhD students, masters students – but if you look at the interactions, it’s pretty collegial,” says faculty member Chris Terman. Such open interplay has an invigorating effect on the community, both personally and scholastically. (Terman slyly goes on to note that “the people who are saying the most interesting things in a given conversation may not always be the faculty member.”)

 

Video: Tom Buehler

Clusters of related research have another interesting effect on the space. Most roboticists, for example, are to be found on the second and third floors of the building. In those groups, a pair of students working on a robotic wheelchair find themselves next to a handful tackling an autonomous forklift and a pair teasing out the mysteries of robotics in oceanography; a post-doctoral assistant working on robotic gardening shares space with students developing a mechanical way to herd cows. Flying robots? Walk down the hall and make a left. Says Professor Russ Tedrake, an inhabitant of this creative muddle, “I absolutely love being able to bring people into this space. The inspiring architecture, inspiring robots inside – the whole package is something I just couldn’t get anywhere else.”

 

Such a dense collection of projects makes for a singularly thrilling lab tour. Beyond that, though, it leads to a cohort of immensely talented people tackling thorny and exciting problems from a plethora of angles. The fact that people get to take a daily look at the ideas of others may be a part of why everyone is so genuinely excited about each others’ work, seeing in it implications and tangents that may inform their own projects down the line. Professor John Guttag likens the encouraging environment to a game of golf between old friends, noting that “if you’re not playing against each other, you can take pleasure in your partner playing a good hole –as long as you play a good hole yourself!”

The move came at an interesting and fortuitous time in the entwined histories of computer science and artificial intelligence, one in which their paths are starting to move forward side by side. One example of that convergence is the way that computer systems have changed. “Operating systems used to be very utilitarian: make this code work, run that program,” says Brooks. “Now it’s more about survivability, interacting in a world of viruses and attacks: they’re social beings, which they didn’t use to be. And that’s trickling out into their interactions with people.”

It’s an exciting time for the field, and a great time to be at CSAIL. Research productivity and collaboration are up from the old lab and rising steadily, due in part to an intriguing internal environment. Admissions are as competitive as at any other leading institution, but once students arrive, there is no scarcity of resources. Professors are available to discuss problems not just with their own students, but with any members of the lab whose work may touch some of their own endeavors.

There is shared infrastructural support, a decision instrumental in both cementing the merge and underpinning the network resources that allow the lab to continue to run smoothly. A fully stocked machine shop, headed by the indispensable Ron Wiken, allows complex parts to be designed and fabricated on the spot, a rarity at other institutions. This adds a hands-on dimension to the students’ education at CSAIL, lending them an intimate understanding of fabrication. And the technological brawn is backed up by a kind of underlying current, an endless peering around corners, embodied in the building itself, in hopes of learning what comes next.

Stata is supported entirely by vast cement columns, often left deliberately exposed as part of the construction. Its lack of load-bearing walls means that spaces can be expanded and contracted to suit the needs of their uses; windows can be re-installed and doors moved. The building is, in many ways, a living, breathing, semi-organic extension of its inhabitants, able to be reconfigured to not only allow, but support the activities within. In the words of Jack Costanza, Assistant Director of Infrastructure: “Having this space that people can mold and shape into what’s best for them at the time is an experiment in itself – and I think it works.”

And in the past five years, that’s happened: it has been modified, re-understood, shifted and molded in such a way that the building on 32 Vassar Street forms a functioning shell to the flurry of research and interaction inside its tilted, curving walls. The sense, upon stepping inside each day, is one of buzzing excitement: the past five years have been generative, vibrant and robust. The mystery of what the next five, ten, twenty will hold is a surprise that should keep the building buzzing for years to come.

May 24, 2008
Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, CSAIL