It’s not often that an architectural project is most known because of a table. But architecture is an art of scales, and the story of the MIT Building 4 Level 4 Renovation is encapsulated in all the small details that make it whole.
Located on the top floor of Building 4 in MIT’s historic Main Group, this renovation brings the Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences department to the Infinite Corridor. For those not well-versed in the vernacular and lore of MIT’s Main Group, the Infinite Corridor is an 825 FT maze of interconnected hallways lined with prominent black framed doorways, patchworks of terrazzo flooring, a highway of utilities, and between classes a steady stream of some of the brightest minds. Building 4, a part of the classical Beaux-Arts ‘Maclaurin Buildings’ by William Welles Bosworth, is a limestone clad cast-in-place concrete structure with brick and terracotta back-up constructed in 1916 and connects with adjacent Buildings 10 and 3 to form MIT’s iconic Killian Court. To complete a renovation in the Main Group is to intersect with a complex set of ecosystems – existing utilities, 100 year-0ld structures, and networks of laboratories and people. At its core, conceptually and figuratively, this project is a high-tech lab insert in a gritty, historic shell.
Each research group included in this 18,000 SF renovation is exploring a different branch of the fundamental forces shaping the natural world – whether it be deep earth history, understanding the atmosphere’s response to past climate change in anticipation of future ones, or the search for ancient life on Mars. These labs are designed to support inquiry from the deepest depths of Earth to the expanse of planetary bodies at the extremes of our universe.
So how could a table – or column enclosure – or window film encapsulate all this?
From floor to table, a piece of furniture designed and fabricated in Payette’s Fab Lab is composed of two characters – a plane of warm, weathered wood atop sinuous laser-cut blackened steel legs. Wood salvaged from the mezzanine hidden beneath Building 4’s double-height ziggurat that once served as utility flooring in an attic full of scientific artifacts, was transformed using a blend of classic craftsmanship and modern fabrication techniques into tables that will be a part of the daily life of these spaces for years to come.
The material language of reclaimed wood and steel meld with the existing landscape created by the core components of the gritty shell (concrete, brick, terrazzo) and the minimal interior finish palette to form a biophilic fabric of textures, color, and light.
While the northern face is lined with large, blackened steel framed windows, due to its role on the top floor serving as a solid cornice, the entire length of Level 4 facing Killian Court is composed of a solid concrete and brick masonry wall with no windows to the exterior. Along with the use of a light, bright finish palette, the renovation reinserts strategically coordinated skylights and interior glazing to weave light, transparency, and connection through dense labs, and dense, solid structure.
Among the lab spaces is a Trace Metal Cleanroom in which colorful translucent plexiglass panels enclose a column; a moment exposing the passage of the historic shell through the insert, distinctly separate, but integral to an extremely high-tech lab environment.
Like the column enclosure that simultaneously encapsulates a clean environment from the shell that holds it while providing a moment of visual history, warmth, and color – the forms and materials of this renovation all bridge beyond a singular purpose. The custom window film that lines the offices down the main corridor is at once a textured screen providing privacy while allowing light from the exterior windows to pass through, and a mural that entwines the diverse identities of the lab groups who spend their days behind these walls. Research groups whose work is multidirectional, both looking to the past and to the future. This is what the mural captures through an abstract representation of layers of the earth, atmosphere, life, and time. Composed of a white fabric-like patterning, the film layers into the biophilic landscape of materials, textures, and colors of both the new and old space. A linear geologic timescale runs the length of the mural and transforms into the evolutionary tree of life which is growing out of the representational layers of earth and atmosphere. The design is mirrored in the middle so that as you walk the corridor you experience the story of the mural both forward and back.
Photos: Becca McGee Sturgeon
At the heart of it, renovations are always an intersection of past and future. The details of this renovation are driven by the world they exist in, but also by how the renovation decides to intersect with the existing environment; they are both a result and a choice. As any renovation does, this brings with it countless challenges at any and every scale – but the definition of challenge in the architectural dictionary is design opportunity.