President’s Column

Craig Parks, Ph.D.
Craig Parks, Ph.D.

The Psychology of Building 20

I recently had the pleasure of reading about the history of a long-demolished building on the MIT campus, Building 20.  It existed from 1942 to 1998.  Building 20 has no place in the history of group dynamics, but it should.  

First, some background: Building 20 was constructed to accommodate MIT’s Radiation Laboratory in its need to expand its research into radar for World War II.  In fact, Building 20 was not so much constructed as it was thrown together: The architectural design was executed in an afternoon; its three stories were supported entirely with wooden posts; its exterior was covered with dark asbestos shingles, which absorbed heat; the flat roof was sealed with tar and gravel, which also absorbed heat; the ventilation system was insufficient for a building of its size; and the small windows did not fit well.  The building was thus hot and humid in the summers, which necessitated the installation of noisy, industrial-size ceiling fans.  Floor numbering, for unknown reasons, used the European system of the ground level being floor 0, the level above it floor 1, and the level above that floor 2.  The wings of the building were lettered, but not alphabetically.  To imagine how the building looked, open your left hand and dangle your fingers toward the ground.  Your palm is the “B” wing, little finger “A” wing, ring finger “E” wing, middle finger “D” wing, index finger “C” wing, and thumb “F” wing.  None of this was a concern, however, because the plan was to tear the building down once the war was over.  

The importance of the wartime work in this building cannot be overstated.  In a short period of time the scientists in the Radiation Lab developed the weather, aerial, naval, and undersea radar tools that are the bedrock of today’s systems.  And true to plan, at war’s end in 1945, MIT initiated plans to raze Building 20.  However, implementation of the GI Bill introduced space shortages at American universities, and MIT was no exception.  The administration decided to keep Building 20 for the time being.  The Department of Electrical Engineering, which was all that remained from the Radiation Lab, stayed, and a hodgepodge of other units got moved into the rest of the space: ROTC; the Ice Research Lab; the Particle Accelerator; the Tech Model Railroad Club; the Atomic Physics Lab; and the Department of Linguistics, to name just a few.  In effect, any unit that had unusual space needs moved out to Building 20.

And this is where it gets interesting.  The weird layout of the building meant that residents often got lost (remember, the first floor is above you, and wings A and E are next to each other) and wandered by a lot of rooms where people were doing a lot of different things.  Further, that people just got put wherever there was open space meant that the lab next to yours might be from a very different discipline than you.  This led to an amazing array of spontaneous group discussions and idea generation.  For example, Amar Bose, an MIT graduate student in engineering in the 1950’s, was frustrated with the speakers in his home hi-fi system.  His office just happened to be next to the Acoustics Lab, so he wandered in one day, started asking questions about sound production…and ended up founding the Bose speaker company.  Noam Chomsky’s theory of the deep structure of language was influenced heavily by his interactions with the computer scientists and biologists who had labs in Building 20.  At the more nefarious end, students in the Model Railroad Club who were responsible for wiring the track’s relays and switches began talking with the computer scientists about better ways to do this; these conversations were a prime impetus to the development of hacking.  

Further, because MIT had no interest in updating the building, users modified the building to meet their needs, usually without asking permission.  (Jerrold Zacharias, developer of the atomic clock, removed the two floors above his lab so that he had a 30-foot ceiling clearance.  As a useful contrast, ask your department chair what would happen if you painted your office without permission.)  A common modification was to move walls to create group conversation areas that could be used for continuation of the spontaneous discussions.  These discussions were so fruitful, and led to so many novel cross-disciplinary ideas, that Building 20 came to be known at MIT as the “magical incubator.”  As well, the building’s status as an unpretentious, ignored structure cultivated in its users a wonderfully creative mindset, on the grounds that they could do and try pretty much anything, and MIT administration would never know.  

This narrative conveys much of what I love about the dynamic of groups.  Unstructured encounters led to the formation of interpersonal connections, emergent groupings, idea generation, and enhanced performance.  Group members altered their physical space to facilitate these experiences.  The unusual circumstances fostered a subgroup norm that benefitted the process, as well as a sense of ingroup-ness, yet also inclusiveness.  Status differences were minimized.  Yes, the denizens of Building 20 were far more capable than the average person, but in my view this had the potential to be a hindrance rather than a help.  As we introduce students to the groups arena, we might want to teach them about life in Building 20 as a case study of the potential of the group setting.

If you would like to learn more about the history of Building 20, I recommend Stewart Brand’s book How Buildings Learn, and the web site MIT created on the eve of Building 20’s demolition, now archived at .