Design As the Invisible Hand

Image thanks to Flickr user eugene. A model of Shanghai in 2020.

In December 1943, a structure, known as Building 20, was erected on the main campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This structure was built in the midst of World War II as a temporary space constructed in a hurried war effort to house the MIT Radiation Lab. Though Building 20 was to be demolished at war’s end, it stood until 1998.

In its 55 years, Building 20 was home to an incredibly diverse range of labs, clubs, programs and departments, whose members partook in a vast array of study. Groups studied adhesives, philosophy, ice, linguistics, plastic, and music, to name a few. The building housed the MIT Press as well as the university’s ROTC program and its Solar Electric Vehicle Team. Even the Tech Model Railroad Club, which has been credited with creating the hacker culture that exists today, was located in Building 20. By the time the building was razed in 1998, it had housed more than 20 percent of the physicists in the United States and had seen nine Nobel Prize winners walk through its doors. In 55 years, Building 20 had produced such monumental research that it was known as the Magical Incubator.

Image thanks to Wikipedia user Susanlesch. Building 20 time capsule, to be opened in 2053. Until then, it is on display in the Stata Center, which replaced the older structure.

The catalyst for all of this innovation? Design. The occupants of Building 20 attributed the “magic” of the space to the mixing of diverse people and ideas. This mixing was made possible by the flexibility of the building’s design. The design of Building 20 as a temporary space had left it without the usual layout of immutable walls that disconnected people from one another. Instead, it provided a frame within which its occupants were able to repurpose its interior to fit their needs and in many cases this meant removing doors and walls. Over time, the space became one in which researchers from many disciplines were regularly bumping into each other, having conversations and seeing works in progress as they walked through the hallways. The design of the building led to a constant, organic, free-flowing brainstorming session, where the environment hovered in the glorious existence between order and chaos.

Design matters because it has consequences. It guides our behavior in powerful but passive ways. It doesn’t actively tell us what to do, but influences our choices by the physical arrangement of infrastructure. Because of design’s passive nature, it is easy to forget the important role it plays in our daily lives and the patterned effects it has on our communities. It can either support or inhibit interaction which affects our relationship with strangers and our trust of those around us.

What once was Justice Park, in Columbia Heights, DC.

We have all seen design that works against us, but we don’t always recognize it. We can walk past a park that has been shut down by the city without ever wondering how it could have been designed differently, to deter the behavior that led to its closure. We often fail to realize that its very presence has now turned into a constant reminder that people around here cannot be trusted, and that message is reflected in the way residents treat one another and the suspicion they carry on their shoulders as they move through their neighborhood.

Walter Hood is a professor of Landscape Architecture & Environmental Planning and Urban Design at UC Berkeley. He emphasizes the importance of understanding the history of a space before designing for it, and using the existing matter and culture to create a framework that supports emergent outcomes, in whatever form they take. Emergent outcomes from Building 20 included Nobel Prize winning ideas and hacker culture. But meeting a best friend or finding some solitude are emergent outcomes just as powerful.

At a recent event at the Goethe-Institut in Washington, DC, Steve Coleman, Executive Director of Washington Parks and People, spoke about the emergent outcomes that have taken place in Meridian Hill Park, since he and a few friends started a neighborhood crime patrol in the area in 1990. What was once home to many of the murders and much of the drug use in DC, is now a thriving “Building 20,” with diversity bumping into itself daily, and people of all stripes adapting the space for their own activities and needs. Coleman said that transforming a space is about giving people the freedom to reassert their lives in it. There is no telling what outcomes will emerge if we are given more freedom to assert our lives in the spaces we occupy, and designing a space with that in mind in an essential part of the process.

Camille Koué

Camille Koué is a former student for the Master’s Degree in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University. She is focusing on the intersection of technology, infrastructure and design and the effects these domains have on human relations, civic engagement and community development. A native of Oakland, California, she graduated from American University with degrees in Visual Media, Justice and Spanish Language.