Building 20

Building 20

A Survey
by Simson Garfinkel

A 1979 survey of Building 20's occupants found mixed feelings about the building. Researchers liked the fact that the wooden building was spacious, informal, intellectually stimulating, and most of all was "mutable." But people complained about the building's temperature problems, that it was dirty, and isolated from the main campus. One professor wrote about being "put in storage" in Building 20; another said that the Building 20 assignment was a form of "punishment" by the administration.

Its not hard to understand divergence of views.

Linguistics professor Morris Halle scoffs at any attempts to romanticize Building 20. "The most important fact is that it was undervalued space," he says, "because the space was so cheap, the Linguistics program at MIT received far more space than it would have at any other university."

But space has a magic of its own. When Halle came to MIT to set up a linguistics program, linguistics was a solitary discipline: graduate students would see their professors and classmates infrequently, spending most of their time in the library. Having space in Building 20 meant being able to completely revise the curriculum, emphasizing group discussion and work. "In order to have research as a social activity, you need space where you do it," he says. The MIT approach to linguistics was so successful that it was emulated by many other departments around the country.

Building 20 became the home of linguistics at MIT by a somewhat curious route. "Professor Bill Locke suggested we use computers to do automatic translation, so we hired Noam Chomsky and Yehoshua Bar-Hillel to work on it," says Jerome Wiesner, former President of MIT. "It didn't take us long to realize that we didn't know much about language. So we went from automatic translation to fundamental studies about the nature of language."

"Building 20 is great because it has no pretenses at all,'' says Gill Pratt, a research assistant at the Laboratory of Computer Science who spent more than a decade in building 20. It attracts people who don't care about appearances. "They cooperate and work because of joy. Nowhere can you find an atmosphere where none of the other trappings of academia exist.''

"[Working in bldg. 20] was just fabulous," recalls Jerome Lettvin, Prof. of Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering. "There was utter freedom for everybody in it [because] it wasn't a department in the ordinary sense. There were no serious committees, or anything of the sort. It was run in almost dictatorial fashion by amiable directors. Our business manager was Ralph Sayers. Let's put it this way, you might regard building 20 as the womb of ideas. It is sort of what you might call the vagina of the institute. It doesn't smell very good, it is kind of messy, but by god it is procreative, and it doesn't make only replicas of itself, as other buildings do. It is sort of all-purpose."

Professor Harold Edgerton had his offices moved from Building 8 and into Building 20 in the early 1960s. It was in Building 20 that Edgerton developed his early deep-sea cameras and sonar systems.

Wiesner goes on to explain that "building 20's architecture contributed to RLE's success. The way the building was constructed --- four wings off a common hallway --- made it easy to get around. Boundaries between different research groups were flexible. There was always something interesting going on behind the next door."

Lettvin remembers, "It was always a wonderful mix of people concerned with different disciplines. We got along fairly well together, so that you could always pop over next-door and talk with somebody who had nothing to do with what you were doing. Simply because everybody had a passion for doing what they were doing. There was no administration overseeing you in some organized way everybody was trusted to do his own work and do it as well as possible. You had the best machine shop in the institute, with some real artist machinists. You had an electronics repair shop that kept the instruments in order (before RLE). After RLE moved out, everything sort of changed to the new era."


In 1988 Alex Beam, a columnist for the Boston Globe, described Building 20 as "the kind of academic melting pot that gives university presidents indigestion."

"Famed linguist and anti-war activist Noam Chomsky works just a few doors away from MIT's ROTC offices, which have decorated one whole wall with a colorful mural of an F-16 fighter. The music department's piano repair facility -- a `computer-free zone,' according to a sign on the wall -- shares a floor with the nuclear science lab's shop room. The model railroad club, which houses the most sophisticated toy train in the world, is just a stone's throw from the chemical engineering department's cell culture lab,'' wrote Beam.

Despite being the home of Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC, Building 20 never received a bomb threat during the student unrest of the late 60s. "All of the people who were against the war were housed there,'' says Warren Seamans, Director of MIT Museum. "To bomb Lettvin's or Chomsky's office didn't make much sense.''

Having serious doubts about the need to have radio-dispatched janitors, Burns and his compatriots procured a crystal for the same frequency used by physical plant and made a recording of the paging system's call tones. "We figured that jamming wouldn't work but that they would get pissed off with false alarms,'' Burns says, chuckling.


Building 20 is showing its age. Every few years, workers from physical plant tighten the bolts on the beams that hold the building together. The putty on its glass windows is cracking: every now and then a window or two gets blown out by hard winter winds. But, all things considered, Building 20 has aged much more gracefully than the other temporary structures put up during the Second World War: its the only one left.

Some of the buildings have burned: A wooden cottage on the west end of campus went up in flames, taking with it the only copy of one bright graduate student's PhD thesis. Most of the other buildings were torn down to make room for new, more permanent structures.

"Everybody says that building 20 is a fire trap. Obviously it isn't, because it is still here,'' says Louis Smullin, Professor Emeritus of electrical engineering and Computer Science.

To be sure, Building 20 has had its share of small fires. One day Smullin came to work and discovered fire trucks around Building 20's main entrance. ``It turned out that someone in the model railroad club had left a transformer on that night and it had caught fire,'' he says. But the building is so large that people in the A wing never knew there was any problem.

These days, the real problem with Building 20 is not fire but asbestos: the building is filled with it. It turns out that Building 20's famed plywood walls are really a composite material impregnated with asbestos fibers, which have been implicated in a variety of lung diseases. As a result, what some people call Building 20's best feature --- that it is easily reconfigured --- is now gone.

"We broke a wall here some years ago,'' remembers professor Halle. "They had to bring in fans. We weren't permitted back in until they cleared the area. They took it very serious.'' Another time, when a workman mistakenly drilled through a wall to pull a wire, the area had to be cleared for five days until it was decontaminated.


In the 1970s, the city of Cambridge began pressuring MIT to have the building demolished. "The city used to complain that we had overstayed our leave,'' says Jerome Wiesner, former President of MIT. But MIT was reluctant to tear it down because of the enormous amount of functional office space that it represented. "Nowadays, a building with 200,000 square feet is an 80 million dollar building, so it is not an easy thing to replace.'' he says smiling. Wiesner continues, "MIT will never build another wooden building like building 20. The city wouldn't allow it, and we don't know how to build cheap buildings anymore.''

One of the first groups to move out of Building 20 was RLE itself. In the mid 1950s, Building 20's neighbor Building 22 was torn down and RLE's new home, the eight-story Fairchild Building (bldg. 38), was constructed in its place.

Instead of rickety wooden windows, 38 had sheets of glass that didn't open. ``It's terrible; I hate it,'' says Wiesner. ``I was involved in its design. By the third time around we had spent $600,000, so we had to buy the building. It is not a horrible building, but it has no special charm.''


In the past ten years, the winds have changed, and now MIT fears that Building 20 might be declared a landmark.

MIT's chief planner, Bob Simha, says that the real reason is because there is no reason to make it a landmark. "Obviously, the building has a lot of interest and romance and nostalgia about it as a piece of MIT history,'' says Simha. But he doesn't think that it should qualify as a historic landmark, since it is not the building itself, but what was done inside it, that is so important. Lettvin explains,

You go back over the history. What you first find is a huge amount of initial microwave studies were done [in building 20], secondly, the inception of the computer. The whole concept, I believe, of DEC began at MIT. There were some of the best computer architects around, and although they got into a big battle and split and the grant had to be turned back, it was the place that first recognized information and information theory. Jerry Wiesner was in at the beginning. Chomsky started linguistics there. Similarly, I believe the cryogenic work was first done there. (people working with efficient low temperature devices). I think PDP-1 was designed there, the first transistor operated computer. You had conferences on information theory that were really widely attended. And the fellow to give you the history on that is the fellow who used to be the head of the Electrical Engineering department. Louis Smullin and Henry Zimmerman. They [also] had projects for the blind- prothesis for the blind that started there. Speech analysis, you know, what goes into speech so you can recognize it. That began there. There were some mathematicians there.

"I know that the Institute is fighting it tooth and nail,'' says Seamans. "It isn't a building that you want around forever: Building 20 isn't a very good use of space.'' Instead of a three floor wooden shack --- albeit a large one --- the Institute could build a six or eight floor continuation of Building 38. "You could literally double the size,'' says Seamans. "It is right in the center of the campus --- really prime space,'' says Seamans. "I've seen an outline that shows a huge classroom there; we're in desperate shortage of classrooms on that side of campus. Logically, it doesn't seem like the best use of space.'' But whether it is the best use of space or not, Building 20 --- all 200,000 square feet of it --- is there, now, and filled with occupants. In the 1950s, MIT produced a film featuring the run-down Building 20 that was supposed to show how badly MIT needed money. The money came in --- and MIT built new buildings, leaving Building 20 standing. Nobody is really sure what is going to happen with building 20 in the future, but the chances are that it will go on standing where it has for nearly the last forty years. Just ask Warren Seamans: ``I think that 10 years from now, we'll still be talking about it.'' "The building will ultimately be replaced as part of the overall campus plan,'' says Robert Simha, director of MIT's Planning Office. The plywood palace will probably come down in sections, to make room for modern steel, concrete and glass constructions with six or eight stories. But, says Simha, ``I would not hold my breath.'' The biggest obstacle to demolishing Building 20 is the people. ``The reality is that Building 20 is fully occupied and we can't do anything with it before significant pieces are relocated,'' says Simha. Right now, Simha says his office is focusing on the construction of the new biology building, Building 68. Once that building is completed, groups moving into Building 68 will free up room in other parts of campus. At that point, parts of Building 20 might start getting cleared out.

Then again, it might not.