• Architect Frank Gehry, observer Jane Wolfson and Dean of the School of Architecture William Mitchell (left to right) made an on-site inspection of Building 20 with local architects and members of the Cambridge Historical Commission.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Cambridge Historical Commission to allow demolition of Building 20

The Cambridge Historical Commission has voted unanimously to permit MIT to raze Building 20 to make way for a new complex of buildings for the Computing, Information and Intelligence Sciences (CIIS). The complex will be named in honor of Ray and Maria Stata.

Building 20 was built in 1943 as a temporary structure to house the Radiation Laboratory. Its design and construction are typical of World War II temporary military buildings. An example of this architecture remains on the top floors of Building 24.

The Historical Commission took the action allowing MIT to demolish Building 20 in consideration of MIT's extensive documentation of life and work inside the wood-frame, barracks-shaped building.

The action taken by the Historical Commission was also taken in consideration of the presence of building materials no longer environmentally acceptable; the inability of the original structure to support modern science and engineering research and the commitment of MIT to proceed with the new building in an expeditious manner.

In addition, members of the Historical Commission were convinced that CIIS, the replacement building to be designed by internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry, would provide a significant contribution to the architectural life of Cambridge.

O.R. Simha, MIT Director of Planning who made the presentations to the Commission on behalf of MIT, commented that the Historical Commission's action was a "real testament to their faith in MIT's desire to continue to build in the spirit of flexibility and innovation, a central theme in MIT's building tradition."

The process of demolition for Building 20 will, because of the large amount of toxic building materials used in its initial construction, require a number of special procedures. The first of these will be to encase the structure in a cocoon, enabling safe removal of its exterior asbestos walls. The work is expected to begin shortly.

Next year, construction will begin on the new CIIS complex, to be completed in 2001. The 320,000 square foot facility will house the Laboratory for Computer Science, the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Laboratory for Intelligent Decision Making and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

Mr. Gehry presented a slide show of possible designs for the CIIS complex, a wooden model of the MIT campus, complete with one iteration of the new complex, and a discussion of his design process at a public hearing with the Historical Commission on July 30. On August 6, the final vote permitting demolition of Building 20 was taken.

In order to enable both the MIT and the wider community to follow the design and construction processes, a web site for this project has been set up at http://ciis.lcs.mit.edu.

The history of Building 20, its occupants and the work that was performed there have been documented in the Building 20 Archival Project, archival and manuscript collections, architectural drawings, a photographic documentation project and on many WWW sites.

The Research Laboratory of Electronics has been gathering informal and personal recollections of life and culture inside Building 20 throughout the past year. Reminiscences were also collected in preparation for "The Magic Incubator," an event held in March to celebrate Building 20's 55th year. Those reminiscences can be found at http://rleweb.mit.edu/bld20rem.htm.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 12, 1998.

Topics: Campus buildings and architecture

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