Chapter 26. MIT: The Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex

Chapter 26. The Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex

Phillip D. Long

What Is It?

MIT is a private research institution located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT had an enrollment of 4,066 undergraduates and 6,140 graduate students in fall 2005.

The Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex (BCSC) at MIT is the largest neuroscience center in the world. This interdisciplinary research and teaching facility integrates three pioneering institutions devoted to uncovering the mysteries of the brain: the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the Pickower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Completed in October 2005, the 411,000-square-foot facility houses headquarters, research laboratories, animal facilities, faculty offices, and collaborative areas. The eight-story complex, designed to accommodate about 500 people, includes a 90-foot-high, five-story, day-lit atrium, an auditorium, three large seminar rooms, a café, glass-walled reading rooms with spectacular views of the campus, tea rooms, libraries, imaging centers, and 48 state-of-the-art wet and dry research laboratories.

What Happens Here?

The BCSC accommodates learning, meetings, and informal gatherings. Facilities include an imaging center, wet and dry labs, and animal facilities.

The BCSC's classrooms, seminars, teaching labs, and conference events support interdisciplinary work in the neurosciences. State-of-the-art wet and dry labs serve investigators in biology, molecular biology, biochemistry, and electrophysiology, as well as cognitive and behavioral neurosciences. Wet labs have multiple LCD monitors to show laptop signals from the instructor and document camera, to project dissections, or to show other lab material.

The Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at the McGovern Institute houses a 3T Siemens magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner and a 9.4T animal scanner from Bruker, providing one of the few places in the world where researchers can conduct comparative studies of the human brain and the brains of different animal species. A multipart vivarium on the top floor of the facility houses research animals.

Terraces overlook the five-story atrium, which provides room for receptions, performances, and public gatherings. Social gathering spaces are scattered throughout the BCSC: tea rooms provide a place for quiet discussion and reading, and the café invites students and faculty to gather.

What Makes the Space Successful?

The space provides a feeling of being generous and open to many views simultaneously. The detailing gives the impression that the building was carefully considered. It is brightly lit from all directions and gives people the chance to see other colleagues working, moving around, or just relaxing. In this sense it seems like a community facility, unlike a row of offices served by dark, narrow corridors.

All the corridors lead to the monumental atrium in the center, which is the heart of the complex. Subtly sculpted surfaces are illuminated by daylight from the skylight above. Looking up, visitors see the lines of exhaust vents, white against the sky, evoking the sense of being carried on an ocean liner. Flights of stairs, dexterously placed along the periphery, connect the various levels, animating the atrium even when no one is around—a vivid symbol of the human interaction so crucial to cutting-edge scientific research.

What Principles Were Behind the Design?

The space embodies several of the university's goals, including an ongoing commitment to research, giving students the opportunity to participate in primary research, and making the best scientific and technological resources available. The design started with a traditional race-track configuration—a loop of corridors with shared facilities at the center. Instead of providing separate loops for each of the three institutes, the design arranged them in a way that melds all three into one continuous system, thus maximizing the flexibility MIT will need in the decades ahead. The three institutes can grow independently to the south and west.

The three institutes' lobbies vary in scale, form, and entryway. The first transition invites people to move from street to plaza to lobby. Inside the building subtle cues signal transitions from laboratories to faculty tea rooms, to meeting rooms, and to a completely shared atrium. The BCSC is fundamentally an interdisciplinary, collaborative space, using tea rooms at the intersections and corners of the spaces to support informal gatherings and casual dining.

The structural and engineering systems were designed to allow changes in laboratory or other interior spaces. Large glass windows bring light from outside into the laboratories, which are also transparent to passersby in the animal or researchers' corridors. The atrium and its surrounding platforms and steps are open from all sides and from many different heights. The atrium serves many functions: as a pedestrian street for MIT people to pass through en route to other parts of the campus, as a conference center with meeting rooms and auditorium, as a café, as a site for large dinners and performances, and many others.

The building minimizes energy and water consumption, and operational strategies foster a healthy indoor environment. Features include high-performance exterior materials, gray-water recycling for flushing toilets, exhaust air stream heat-recovery, and interior finishes that minimally impact indoor air quality. The building was designed to achieve a Silver LEED rating—a measure of environmental responsibility administered by the U.S. Green Building Council.

How Is Technology Used?

The primary function of the space is to support authentic, leading research in cellular, molecular, behavioral, cognitive, and computational neuroscience. The most visible technologies are the discipline-specific tools of the 21st-century researcher, including a specialized imaging facility to house three fMRI magnets. Building technology is largely transparent, leaving research and teaching to remain center stage.

The auditorium features dual LCD projectors for computers and video sources, program and speech audio systems, and ceiling microphones over seating areas. There are laptop inputs at the podium, and cameras to provide video into two flat-floor overflow rooms. These three rooms can originate or receive presentations from the other rooms via Tandberg videoconferencing codecs for computer, video, and audio. The codecs can deliver content captured in these spaces to the world via IP. Videoconferencing uses robotic tracking cameras and ceiling-mounted audio capture arrays supporting H.323.

The building is wireless (802.11 b/g) throughout, as is the entire MIT campus. In addition, MIT Net provides fixed network ports (100 megabits per second to the 10 gigabyte backbone) and supports a virtual private network (VPN) for sensitive research equipment. Multiple high-performance computing Beowulf clusters are available.

What Is Unique or Noteworthy?

BCSC features several unusual elements, from its transparent architecture to its incorporation of a railroad line. The tea rooms, for example, with their varied design and informal character, contrast with the more formal laboratory spaces. Mostly associated with the public atrium, they can be seen from all around, especially the tea rooms with open terraces.

As it reinforces the street edge, the built form enlivens and activates the life of the street. The complex offers itself to the neighborhood through large expanses of glass—in some cases several stories tall—that give passersby an opportunity to glimpse the life inside.

The transparent architecture provides as many striking vistas for pedestrians as it does for occupants. Public spaces along the outer edges of the envelope house giant palm and bamboo plants that tower over hallways and sidewalks. Depending on the vantage point—inside or outside the building—windows reveal or reflect the urban landscape, the fast-moving clouds over Cambridge, and Frank Gehry's Stata Center directly across Vassar Street.

The crossing of the railroad at a height of about 22 meters through the center of the building site means that passage across the building requires a large movement up and down by stair or elevator. Because of the low-frequency vibration caused by the railway, the building is stabilized by steel pylons to the solid ground below. Soundproofing has muted the railway noise and sirens from the surrounding streets.

The building, in crossing an active freight rail corridor, was designed to open the way for the campus's expansion to the north. The tall exterior walls were designed to enclose the three streets the building faces, especially Main Street, where it attempts to unify the random blocks of Technology Square. Two plazas add to the interest of the surrounding streets.

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About the Author

Phillip D. Long is senior strategist for academic computing and director of learning outreach for iCampus at MIT.