Innovation & Design

On Campus: Sharing Space, Sharing Ideas


The return of the roundtable to college campuses is accompanied by architect-designed buildings with an emphasis on collaboration

When taking a broad look at some of the nation's—and the world's—most adventurous, well-endowed, and forward-thinking campuses, it's clear that one rising trend is toward encouraging increased cross-pollination between fields.

The Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, which opened in 2004, is home to three departments: the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), and the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

The $138 million James H. Clark Center at Stanford University, meanwhile, designed by Foster and Partners and opened in 2003, houses the school's Bio-X program, which encourages multidisciplinary research in the fields of biology and medicine. Foster and Partners designed the 146,000 sq. ft. building with a radically large, flexible lab space, more warehouse loft than traditional boxy laboratory, that can be easily configured to accommodate a variety of layouts to maintain a sense of flexibility and open-mindedness.

Space for Collaboration

The Clark Center also features glass walls for a literal sense of intellectual transparency and sharing. Balconies surround a central courtyard where faculty, students, and visiting researchers from different departments are encouraged to gather, ideally to exchange their ideas and come up with new ones.

Similarly, MIT's new Brain and Cognitive Sciences Center, designed by Charles Correa (with research spaces by Goody, Clancy and Associates) and opened across from the Stata Center in 2005, features a lofty, 90-foot-tall atrium intended as an impromptu meeting place where collaboration is encouraged.

Other well-funded top universities are taking the concept of collaboration to new heights, pouring pooled resources into superlative collaborative tools for the sciences and computing. A group of elite academic institutions—the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Harvard University, MIT, the University of Arizona, the University of Michigan, and Australian National University—is working with Carnegie Institution of Washington and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to construct the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), to be located at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile for best viewing possibilities.

The GMT, when completed in 2016, promises to be the world's largest telescope and will produce images 10 times sharper than those of the famed Hubble Space Telescope.

A Move to Corporate Thinking?

The University of Texas at Austin's Texas Advanced Computing Center, Cornell's Theory Center, and Arizona State University's Fulton High Performance Computing Institute are banding together with Sun Microsystems to create the most powerful general-purpose system for open research in the world. The start-up $59 million cost for the project, to be functioning by 2008, is funded by a National Science Foundation grant given jointly to the consortium.

Both of these projects are reminiscent of the open innovation networks of, say, IBM, which involve a corporation tapping outside partners to foster inventive thinking that reaches beyond the boundaries of a company's resources.

Structures for the Future

In other words, the spirit of collaboration that is fueling the design of the nation's most innovative campus architecture and facilities is clearly fueled in part by efficiency—economic, intellectual, and scientific. Shared resources and spaces could mean ideas are exchanged and projects developed more rapidly than if fostered in a siloed department or in an individual institution with perhaps limited means.

To evaluate whether today's radically inventive university buildings and resources herald future cross-disciplinary breakthroughs in science and engineering (or, in the case of the Stata Center, linguistics and philosophy, too) will take time. After all, these structures and tools are experiments in themselves.

Jana is a reporter with BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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