Building 20's Design

It is said that Building 20 was designed in one day. The barracks style is plain, and many people would describe the building as shabby, dingy, or unpretentious. However, as Stewart Brand astutely points out in his book, How Buildings Learn: What Happens to Buildings After They're Built, Building 20's lack of style and its low-visibility have allowed its occupants to be wonderfully creative and successful within its walls.

Building 20, plan
shown in relationship to Buildings 24 and 22


Building 20 is comprised of six wings. B-wing runs parallel to Vassar Street. Wings A, E, D, and C extend perpendicularly off the south side of B wing, and F wing (the "newest" wing) is an extension off the east end of B-wing. The structure doesn't have a basement; it was built on concrete slabs. Building 20's horizontal design is emphasized by the length of its wings and the fact it stands only three stories tall.

Adaptable space
A Wing, south end
View of shed extending of the south end of A Wing.

At the time of its construction, steel was scarce, and Building 20 is mainly made of wood. Although the building appears weathered, it is certainly not rickety, the building is capable of supporting loads up to 150 pounds per square foot. Over the years, depending upon their projects, Building 20's occupants have reconfigured their work spaces, sometimes by changing the interior of their rooms or labs, sometimes by expanding into adjacent rooms. Small sheds and other structures that are signs of expansion, are visible in the courtyards in between wings A, E, D, and C. And an on at least one occasion, one professor expanded his lab space vertically. (When Jerrold Zacharias was developing the world's first atomic clock, he arranged to have sections of two floors removed so he could assemble a tall cylinder that was part of his design.) The exposed duct-work and wiring that is clearly visible above most of the hallways is accessible to those who need to rewire computer networks or work on some of the service functions of the building.

C wing, Building 20
Building 20, view of the east side of C Wing, 1997.

Working atmosphere in Building 20
Building 20, detail view
Detail view of Building 20.

Many people believe that the horizontal layout of Building 20 encouraged collaborations. People who met in the lobby, or in one of the long hallways, or on a wooden staircase could easily share information and ideas. Although the unpretentiousness of Building 20 made some people feel like they were being overlooked, it was liberating for other professors who felt freer to be creative and make the most out of the available space. MIT never seemed overly concerned about Building 20 (quite possibly because everyone knew it was a "temporary" building), and MIT generously gave space to new student clubs and new departments. These same units might not have ended up with as much space had they been assigned space in a building located in a heavily- trafficked area of campus.

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