NU's plans, groupthink, and the legendary Building 20

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MITs Stata Center
Northwestern University is citing "critical proximity" as a nonnegotiable aspect of its plan to build a new medical research center on the site of Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Hospital. Critical proximity is a technical term that means absolutely essential right-next-doorness.

Prentice, a unique piece of Chicago’s architectural legacy, happens to be right next door to the Lurie Center for Medical Research, which NU opened five years ago.

And that's why the university wants to knock it down.

NU says it can only discover lifesaving cures for horrible diseases if its research buildings stand cheek to cheek. If any of the two thousand scientists who'll work in the new building have to, say, cross the street to have a cup of coffee with folks who work in the Lurie building—well, we can kiss the next big Alzheimer's or cancer breakthrough good-bye.

A legendary model for research buildings is described at length in Jonah Lehrer's New Yorker article, "Groupthink," published last January. As noted in my column this week, "Groupthink" summarizes the science behind NU's building plans.

The legendary model is MIT's Building 20, a "magical incubator" that "ranks as one of the most creative environments of all time," Lehrer writes.

A sprawling, three-story, temporary space, hastily erected in 1943 to house the Rad Lab (where government-funded scientists perfected the radar that won World War II), Building 20 was subsequently used as a catch-all for a mishmash of MIT faculty and departments. It was there, for example, that Amar Bose created his revolutionary speakers, Jerold Zacharias developed the atomic clock, and Noam Chomsky reinvented linguistics.

Lehrer writes that Building 20's confusing, horizontal layout "spurred interaction" among its tenants. That's what Northwestern's seeking with its "critical proximity" plans. But NU's planning a vertical structure that, in its initial stage, will have as much as a half-million square feet (twice the size of Building 20). And the university says it'll conduct a design competition for a "significant" building, inviting "the world's best architectural firms" to participate.

That sounds like the anti-Building 20.

Because Building 20 was, as Lehrer source Stewart Brand notes in his book, How Buildings Learn, a "low road" environment— a place so old and ramshackle, "nobody cares what you do in there."

"Like most Low Road buildings, Building 20 was too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, Spartan in its amenities, often dirty, and implacably ugly," Brand wrote.

The great thing was that walls could be chopped open at will, utility lines tapped into without permission, floors sawed through. It was "freeing."

Or, as Chomsky’s friend and Building 20 neighbor, linguistics professor Morris Halle put it (in Brand's book): "One never needs to worry about injuring the architectural or artistic value of the environment."

Building 20 was torn down in 1998; it was irreplaceable, but what stands on its site now is Frank Gehry's topsy-turvy Stata Center.

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