You know good architecture when you see it; it doesn't make a fuss, but rather artfully steps forward and says: “Here I am.” And that is exactly what you experience in the sophisticated design for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) new Media Lab Building in Cambridge, Mass., designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Fumihiko Maki. One might expect a lot of complicated architectural gestures to be included in a world-renowned facility such as the Media Lab, where some of the most advanced thinking about design and technology is occurring today. But that would have been contrary to Maki's architectural approach, which is grounded in the traditions of Modernism. Like the man himself, the building is unpretentious and meticulous in every detail.

Maki and his design team at Maki and Associates, led by Gary Kamemoto, have created a space that is wholly conceived around the theme of communication and collaboration. Everything is meant to foster a physical and visual dialogue—from the sectional configuration of the building itself to the design of the individual labs.

A lot was at stake for MIT in seeing this project through. Recent outings with high-profile architects such as Frank Gehry, and his design for the university's Stata Center, had met with mixed reception and problematic construction issues. And the fate of the Media Lab was not without its own bit of drama. Design for the building began in 1999, at the height of the dot-com frenzy. When that bubble burst, technology companies, many of whom were supporting partners in the lab's research initiatives, were unsure of their own futures. So the university put the project on hold in 2003.

Three years later, with the technology world having regained its footing, MIT decided to move ahead with the building. Design was completed in April 2007 and construction began in May of that year. It was finally completed in Dec. 2009, which was no small feat given the recent economic downturn. That the integrity of the architectural design conceived by Maki and Associates was maintained throughout these starts and stops is a testament to the respect and collaboration between the design team members—including Boston-based executive architects Leers Weinzapfel Associates and Cambridge, Mass.–based lighting designers Lam Partners.

The layout of the new six-story Media Lab Building focuses on transparency and the physical manifestation of light. Divided into three zones—the upper and lower atriums, the labs, and the service areas—there is “a great clarity to the building,” explains Joe Pryse, principal at Leers Weinzapfel Associates and Maki and Associates' local point person for the project. Even on an overcast, rain-drenched day (the circumstances under which ARCHITECTURAL LIGHTING visited the project) the quality of light throughout the building is beautifully sublime.

Architecture and light are perfectly balanced. There is a fundamental awareness of natural light in Maki's thinking about architecture that permeates the entire building, and which contributes to the ease of movement from space to space. In fact, that sense of openness is one of the most surprising—and refreshing—things about the MIT Media Lab. The fact that during regular business hours one can walk right into the lobby galleries and even up into the labs without having to check in at a security desk stays true to the Media Lab's mission to maintain a sense of transparency about the work and research that is conducted there.

The Media Lab is home to seven different laboratories, each of which investigates something different—from digital technologies to the future of the automobile. Each lab is its own community—or neighborhood, if you will—within the city that is the MIT Media Lab. The design of the new labs, which range in size from 5,000 to 8,500 square feet, were modeled after the layout of lab E15 in the existing media lab building. The existing lab building, adjacent to the new facility, was designed by architect and MIT alum, I.M. Pei, and follows a more typical layout of cubicle-type spaces. But what is unique about lab E15, and what the researchers commented on after being polled about the types of spaces in which they preferred to work, was the openness of that lab's layout: It is a double-height work area ringed by offices on an upper and lower level. Maki replicated the E15 lab layout and took it one step further by staggering the overall sectional arrangement of the labs. This creates myriad views no matter where you are in the building. Horizontally, vertically, and even diagonally across the atriums, colleagues can take a peak at their compatriots work, fostering both formal and informal discussion.

Everything about the building's design is maximized for flexibility, allowing researchers the room to work in order to respond to the latest technological advancements. Telephone and data lines are laid out in a grid in the floor and the ceiling is outfitted with structural points from which to hang things. This gives the researchers the option of using every available surface.

This flexibility also is found in the lighting. For the galleries, labs, and workshops, Lam Partners employed a tracklighting strategy. “The goal was to provide a framework,” says lighting designer and Lam co-principal Keith Yancey. “But we also designed the space with the idea in mind that folks could turn lights on and off, change the spacing of fixtures, or even remove fixtures completely, if need be.”

A further testament to the clarity of the original architectural concept and the architectural lighting design and layout is that, once the project design resumed in 2006, Lam Partners was not allowed to go back and update its fixture or technology selections. Rather, they had to keep what they had chosen back in 2000–03; MIT was concerned that the project would not stay on track or budget if design selections were revisited.

As a result, the building does not use as many LED fixtures as one might expect, given the proliferation of that light source and the forward-thinking nature of the work being done at the Media Lab. At the beginning of the project, LED technology was still in its infancy, so Lam Partners had only introduced LED features as accent details. For example, there are recessed LED up-lights in the entry gallery as well as in the treads of the stairways that connects the lower and upper atriums. Linear fluorescent, compact fluorescent, and PAR lamps make up the majority of sources used for the project.

“Yes, it was a bit frustrating that we couldn't revisit any new technologies,” Yancey says. “But now that the building is complete, they might revisit some technologies as needed. Still, they have a sound and reliable base with which to work.” This point is echoed by Lam colleague and co-principal Robert Osten: “The goal was to provide a workable base layer of light, which would be as flexible as the space.”

And regardless of the particular generation of lighting technology used, energy code compliance was never compromised. In order to meet the light levels as warranted by the Massachusetts state energy code, all fixtures are on a sensor. The design of the buildings' exterior façade—an aluminum pipe screen—also came about as a result of the Massachusetts state energy code regulations, which mandates that, in terms of transmissible light, up to 50 percent of a building's exterior can be glass. To articulate the building's aluminium and glass façade, Maki and Associates devised a layout where panel sections of the pipe screen aid in cutting out 50 percent of the transmissible light into the building interior. There is also a very fine ceramic frit pattern on the center section of the curtain-wall glass.

In keeping with the lab's mission to stay connected to the university and to research communities, the building's sixth floor is designed as an event space for conferences and symposia. There are a variety of spaces that can satisfy the needs of different types of meetings—including a 100-seat auditorium, a 3,500-square-foot multifunction space, and an outdoor terrace. Common to all of the spaces, however, are the extraordinary views of the Boston skyline (something Maki had in his mind since his attendance at the 1953 opening of nearby 100 Memorial Drive), as well as an amazing amount of natural light from the curtain-wall windows and diffuse ambient light from the skylight system in the partially sloping roof structure.

From top to bottom, every inch of the new MIT Media Lab Building is given careful consideration. Nothing is forced and everything works together expertly. This is an architecture and a lighting design that knows what it is doing. It is a clear vision executed by a deft hand—the hand of a master architect.


Project MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, Mass.
Client Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.
Design Architect Maki and Associates, Tokyo
Executive Architect Leers Weinzapfel Associates, Boston
Lighting Designer Lam Partners, Cambridge, Mass.
Structural Engineer Weidlinger Associates, Cambridge, Mass.
General Contractor Bond Brothers, Everett, Mass.
Project Size 163,000 square feet
Project Cost $90 million
Photographer Andy Ryan, New York and Boston

Manufacturers / Applications

Altman T6 metal halide very narrow beam uplights in atrium elevator pits
Bega Compact fluorescent steplights at outside ramps and in event space on sixth floor
Belfer Compact fluorescent cove strip for Winter Garden architectural “holes in the wall”
Birchwood Linear fluorescent downlights for medium-sized conference rooms
Design Plan Custom-designed single 1W warm-white LED uplights recessed in lower atrium connecting stair, warm-white LED uplights recessed in lower atrium terrazzo floor and roof deck
Edison Price Compact fluorescent downlights in corridors
Engineered Lighting Products Upper atrium skylight well, Winter Garden conference room, and lounge space
Erco 70W ceramic metal halide light scoops on the catwalks and exterior courtyard
ETC Unison controls, PAR scoops and ellipsoidals in sixth floor event space
Ledalite T5HO fluorescent cove in Winter Garden
Lighting Services Inc. Two-circuit track and compact fluorescent track heads throughout building
Lightolier Monopoint track in Winter Garden architectural “holes in the wall”
Lutron Lighting controls for the all labs and galleries
Vode Lighting Wall-mounted wallwasher at pantry behind upper atrium