Sunday, June 14, 2015

Buildings and Creativity

The above is a view of Bell Labs in Holmdel. I spent the summer of 1965 there between my MIT work. I recall driving my little yellow VW into the complex the first time in 1964 when at NY Tel to coordinate with BTL on the introduction of the No1 ESS. My office in NY was a desk on some non-descript floor at 140 West Street. In NYC there was no air conditioning and you had to commute like all other New Yorkers, by bus, subway, ferry etc. Now Holmdel was the "future" Now of course it is trying to avoid the bull dozers and new homes. The tale is that buildings do not mean anything. Some of my most creative times were spent in Building 20 at MIT, the wooden rat infested Rad Lab structures, now replaced by the Gehry monstrosity of the Stata building. What lent the most to creativity, wood and asbestos or glass and leaky windows?

Now the New Yorker has a piece on the Google building boom.The writer notes:

The idea of living not just near one’s employer but in a world of its creation will sound horrifying to many workers: company towns were supposed to have vanished as an industrial-age perversion. But there are socially responsible reasons for holding employees in lavish corporate dorms. For one thing, it keeps them from messing with the local real estate. As I reported in the magazine last year, the greater Bay Area is in the throes of an acute housing crisis, exacerbated, if not caused, by forces attending tech’s wild ascent. The value of employee housing, if built from the ground up, is one of the few points on which large tech companies and housing activists see eye to eye. For the companies, too, there’s a promise of fruitful cohesion (the group that lives together grows together) and productivity (no trains to catch). It’s less clear how tech giants are served by campuses that tune out the outside world. When organized monasticism took root with the Buddhists, in the fourth century B.C., it was the result not of religious insularity but of secular wealth. To shelter nomadic monks was thought to be admirable, so those with faith and money sought to institutionalize the practice. Twenty-five hundred years later, perhaps not too much has changed. To the extent that Google has done its business on the premises of enlightenment (“Universally accessible and useful”) and virtue (“Don’t be evil”), its research for the future shares a questing optimism—and a reverent isolationism—with the studious faiths of the past.

 It is a truly monastic and insular approach. In old Building 20 we walked to many places just to get out of the cold and out of the heat. In Holmdel one went no further than your aisle. You never went to the adjacent aisle, no less the lower or upper floor. You were compartmentalized. My job was the cross point matrix driver for the No 1 ESS switch. Somewhere in the maze of a building was the software. No where was there a vision!

Buildings are a powerful mechanism for communications, or the destruction of such. The building should allow flow, not distract from itself, and facilitate what needs facilitating. My most creative spot was at the old MIT Instrumentation Lab looking out over the back window to the coffin factory, seeing the mahogany coming in and the finished products going out. It was a mix of Camus and Kafka, a vision of life that few have. Behind the coffin factory was the glue factory, with the remains of horses going in and little bottles of glue coming out to be sent to little children to draw their school picture cut outs.

Today in those same spots are multi story buildings all filled with biotech. small DNA segments running through machines. No more coffins. In fact few if any remember the coffin factory. Each day I sat there writing Stochastic Systems and State Estimation, no air conditioning, sweat dropping down my arm as I wrote pencil on yellow pads. No PC, no assistants, just the steady flow of wood to coffins and dead horse to glue bottles.

So perhaps Google may be making a colossal mistake. For McGarty's Law is "Anytime a company builds a massive new corporate headquarters, they soon go bankrupt!" Let's just wait. The again we may have to see what I meant by "soon", it took 20 years for Holmdel.