MIT professor Bruce Tidor's new work space, redesigned with a nod to the Fibonacci numbers. (Photograph by Greg Premru) MIT professor Bruce Tidor's new work space, redesigned with a nod to the Fibonacci numbers.

Intelligent Design

Inspired by the Fibonacci numbers, this MIT professor?s office really is the sum of its parts.

October 5, 2008
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Bruce Tidor, a professor of biological engineering and computer science at MIT, moved in to a silver corner of Frank Gehry's iconic Stata Center - the part facing Vassar Street that looks like Dr. Seuss had a hand in the design - in 2004. He checked out the deliberately exposed concrete slabs and dim indirect lighting and knew he wanted to make a few changes. "I wanted a more finished look," he says.

* The Vision Redesign his office with a nod to the Fibonacci numbers.

* Wait. What? The Fibonacci numbers are a mathematical sequence in which the first number is 0, the second number is 1, and each number that follows is the sum of the two numbers before it. The numbers appear constantly and consistently in nature - in the scales of a pineapple or the spacing of the chambers of a nautilus shell, for example - and the algorithm is key to computer modeling.

* Why Use an Algorithm as a Design Element? Tidor uses computer modeling to understand, analyze, predict, and design things in biology (like the structure of molecules in proteins). "I had a lot of ideas about how I wanted the space to be interactive and contemplative," he says, and hoped to bring a theme of mathematics and computer modeling into the office somehow. Somerville architect Paul Lukez stealthily worked the Fibonacci numbers into the design. "There was this huge wall," Lukez says. "How do you give it some sense of scale? How do you make it lyrical in some way? We wanted to create a pattern that could evolve and be integrated into the composition of the wall."

* How They Did It A series of high shelves and a long wall offered a perfect opportunity for a mathematical marvel; if you look closely, you'll see that there's more to the pattern of tall, narrow spaces than just storage. The thinnest space represents the number 1 in the algorithm; the space next to it is the same size, the one next to that is twice as wide, and the one next to that is equal to the width of the two spaces before it. "So it had this nice mathematical theme running through it," Tidor explains.

* What We Love Maple-wood panels house light fixtures and tie the 18-foot ceilings into the space below; the height and the light make the small office seem much larger than it really is. Understated storage boxes hide the paperwork that used to clutter Tidor's old office. "In all of my other offices, I had piles on the floor, in some corner, just stuff that I wasn't ready to throw away yet, but that I didn't need very often," Tidor says. "And my desk was pulled back a couple of feet, with these boxes hidden behind it, and the edges of the office were all taken up by these things. And I thought, well, you know, I have such a high office, I should put lots of shelves up there. It doesn't matter if I can't get to them very often."

* The Biggest Challenge Though the project evolved over about six months, Lukez says that most of the sleek maple and glass components were created off -site and assembled in the office in less than a week - a major challenge, considering that things are rarely square or level in a Gehry-designed building. "Even the windowsills were at different heights," Lukez says. Jeff Wodzinski of Pembroke-based Wood Decor Inc., who built the components in about three weeks with his brother-in-law Joe Hicks, agrees. "It was very difficult to install," he says. "We had to make a lot of adjustments."

* Exponentially Better A built-in tower with wavelike shelves and a movable, egg-shaped tabletop pay homage to nature, symbolizing "the creation of life and creative ideas," Tidor says. In spite of Tidor's connection to computer science, his office has some decidedly low-tech touches, like the large panel of heavy-duty glass that the professor uses as a dry-erase board. "It's more fun to write on" than a high-tech computerized tablet, he says.

Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff . Send comments to


Paul Lukez Architecture, 1310 Broadway,
Somerville, 617-628-9160,


Wood Decor Inc., 300 Corporate Park, Unit 1940,
Pembroke, 781-826-4954,

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