The Trials and Tribulations of Collaboration

Collaboration and the workplace have been in the news lately—-see Susan Cain, “The New Groupthink” in the New York Times; Allison Arieff on The Atlantic website; and the panel discussion on The Not So Corporate Campus at SPUR (moderated by my grad school classmate). And the recent spate of articles have led to much debate in our very open office.

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Of the recent stories, one of the most interesting–at least architecturally–is in the new New Yorker, where Jonah Lehrer writes on “Groupthink” and the magical place that was MIT’s Building 20. This building, designed in one day, was quickly and cheaply constructed by MIT to temporarily house the Radiation Lab (or Rad Lab). Over time more groups were thrown in there, and the underdesigned nature of the building led to fortuitous encounters by scientists lost in the corridors (the A wing leads to the B wing, which leads to the E wing—-and makes no sense!) and a wide range of intellectual breakthroughs—including Chomskyan linguistics, Bose electronics, and the first video game. The cheap, no-frills structure enabled users to remake the spaces to meet their needs. For example, in developing the first atomic clock, Jerrold Zacharias knocked out two floors to make room for three-story-tall metal cylinder. Walls were knocked down willy-nilly whenever one of the occupants wanted to expand his or her territory.

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As Fred Hapgood wrote in his book Up the Infinite Corridor: MIT and the Technical Imagination, “The edifice is so ugly . . . that it is impossible not to admire it, if that makes sense; it has 10 times the righteous nerdly swagger of any other building on campus, and at MIT any building holding that title has a natural constituency.”

The RAND Corporation building in Santa Monica similarly encouraged chance encounters and led to unexpected collaborations. A mathematician drew a diagram of how to maximize interaction, and the building plan is a literal construction of this diagram—and an extension of RAND’s interdisciplinary research model. It’s pretty fascinating stuff. (Another one of my grad school classmates, Michael Kubo, wrote his thesis on the RAND building, and was lucky enough to raid their archives before the building was demolished.)

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In an era of overdesigned buildings intended to spark collaboration, it is worthwhile to revisit these remarkable underdesigned spaces.

– Meera

 

PS The main point of Jonah Lehrer’s excellent article was debunking myths about brainstorming—basically, uncritical group brainstorming doesn’t work. Study after study has proved that people are far more effective at coming up with ideas when working alone. But physical proximity matters, too. In Building 20 and the RAND headquarters, scientists wandered out of their private offices and encountered people with different ideas, expertise, and experiences, which spurred creative thinking.

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