In 1943, as part of the American war effort, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) took on additional research for the military and hastily erected a building to house the scientists undertaking this work. This plywood based building was designed to be knocked down at the end of the war. It had exposed cables and piping, badly fitting windows that let the wind in, and for the scientists that worked there it felt like an oven in summer and a fridge in winter.
By the time it was eventually demolished in 1998 it had been the home of some of the most remarkable innovations of the 20th century. Building 20 was the base for the development of high-speed photography, modern-theory linguistics, single-antenna radar and the development of microwave science. The first video game and the Bose Corporation were also born there – and purely because of the fact that it was such a badly designed building.
After the war MIT were desperately short of space for staff and students and so rather than demolish the building, it was retained filled with a variety of disparate departments. Building 20 only had three floors and from above, it looked like a misshapen letter ‘E’. It was very confusing to navigate around the building, even for people who had been there for many years, as people kept changing the layout to suit the needs of their particular research. If the scientists needed more water or power, they simply helped themselves by tapping into the exposed lines and pipes.
It was a constantly evolving building – but only because it had been designed to be temporary. If it had been designed in accordance with building codes then it would have been impossible for the scientists to do this.
The fact that it was notoriously hard to navigate would lead occupants to stray into offices and labs that weren’t part of their field of research – but would create opportunities for ‘So what are you guys doing here?’ discussions.
Amar Bose was a prime example of this. Bose was a music enthusiast but found that the music speakers of the time sounded terrible. In 1956, while writing his PhD dissertation in electrical engineering, Bose was based in Building 20, and he often found himself wandering into the acoustics laboratory. Being interested in hi-fi sound quality he started spending more time working with the acoustics team and with the help of their engineers, he invented an innovative, wedge-shaped construction with twenty-two speakers that delivered high quality audio reproduction.
Amar Bose later went on to found the Bose Corporation.
In a conventional building, departments would have social events within themselves, but in Building 20 when they held parties, people would be getting drunk with people from completely different fields – a very conducive environment for the propagation of edgy new ideas.
Building 20 was a source of brilliance solely due to its terrible design and combination of a mishmash of disparate inhabitants thrown together out of a need for space – a situation that would be difficult to recreate in today’s world.
The questions for us In our business environments today, are what can we do to try to replicate even a tiny amount of the interaction that occurred in Building 20? How can we create a ghost of Building 20 in our workplaces to boost the thinking of our teams?