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At Kendall, look what the Gehry cat pulled out of his hat

With its bulges and tilts and popped-out windows seemingly straight from Dr. Seuss, the Stata Center is without question a building that calls attention to itself.

But when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology asked star architect Frank Gehry to design a new home for technology and research on the campus, there was an urban design goal as well: that the 700,000-square-foot, nearly $300 million complex would effectively give the university a new premier address and orientation, as well as transform Vassar Street in the process.

"That was absolutely the intention," says Bill Mitchell, former dean of MIT's architecture school and top adviser in the overall redesign of the campus. "The Stata opens up an entrance at Vassar and Main that the campus had turned its back on. What's new at MIT is happening in a new corner of the campus."

Don't get me wrong. The Stata Center, which had its gala opening on Wednesday, is a must-see stop on any Boston-area architectural tour and a marvelous, playful building to explore and to gawk at from street level. I like the walk-by chalkboards, and the carved-out spaces and angled walls -- even if they do make Noam Chomsky dizzy. The convention-defying statement that the Stata makes is welcome in these parts, where tastes tend to run on the conservative side.

But the Stata is still a building among other buildings. As such, it performs a service: to spark activity in Kendall Square and to shift the center of gravity of the MIT campus.

MIT has been in search of a new grand entrance for a long time. In some early renderings of the William Welles Bosworth-designed campus, well-dressed folk were shown disembarking from boats on the Charles River and sauntering up through Killian Court toward MIT's iconic dome. But the rush of traffic on Memorial Drive drowned out any hope of large numbers approaching the campus on foot that way.

Campus circulation patterns shifted around the corner anyway, to Massachusetts Avenue. Every Cambridge driver knows the spot where the lights turn red seemingly every 30 seconds to allow students to cross from Kresge Auditorium to 77 Mass. Ave, and the start of the infamous infinite corridor.

Now the shift is on once again, around one more corner to Vassar Street, a back-service alley roughly parallel with Memorial Drive that landscape architect Laurie Olin, whom MIT hired to redesign the campus, saw as "Siberian" and badly in need of transformation. It wasn't much of an address for the jumble of World War II-era buildings referred to only by number.

"We were very conscious of what we were opening up, and it was a big part of the part of the brief we gave to Gehry," says Mitchell. "He's done it so the approaches from different directions are varied and interesting. It's an extraordinary street corner there now, a really urbane space, where it was a wasteland."

The transformations shouldn't stop at the corner of Vassar and Main. Vassar, named after the college along with a handful of other streets in the area (Amherst, Harvard), will become "the major thoroughfare at the heart of the new part of MIT," Mitchell says.

MIT has hired Carol R. Johnson Associates to design a new look for this boulevard in the making, with lots of trees, sleek street lighting, a dedicated bike lane, and a series of paving textures making it clear that cars, bikes and pedestrians will share the space. The street will get the same makeover on the other side of Mass. Ave.

Vassar will be a boulevard of standout buildings, from the Stata to the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Center to Stephen Holl's Simmons dormitory on the other side of Mass. Ave. If the Urban Ring is ever built, it will also be a functional and busy crossroads, even beyond the pedestrian traffic that is generated now.

For now, Main Street will be an obvious beneficiary. The short stretch between the Kendall Square T stop and the Stata will be filled with hundreds of new people, many in a hurry, but some able to shop or drink at a cafe. It may be mostly psychological, but the Stata's proximity to the station makes it more appealing to take the T to MIT.

If a college campus is a microcosm of a city, the MIT brain trust has hit on a winning combination of interesting architecture and effective urban design. This part of Cambridge is becoming a real laboratory, in more ways than one.

Got a place in mind? Anthony Flint can be reached at

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