Interdisciplinary spaces on campus

For five decades, Building 20 stood on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The exterior of the building revealed its origins as a temporary structure built to accommodate post-World War II growth. Defined in an exhibit at the MIT Museum as a “plywood palace,” the wood-frame construction was nondescript and decidedly utilitarian. Despite its ramshackle appearance, the building came to embody the industrious spirit of the institution. MIT’s influential wartime radar project developed within its walls as well as the Institute’s first interdisciplinary projects. The Stata Center now stands on the former site of Building 20. The new construction, which includes over 720,000 square feet of space, “is meant to carry on Building 20’s innovative and serendipitous spirit” (Mitchell 2004). The building’s whimsical construction—including a design based solely on curves and angles—fosters creativity and interdisciplinary engagement for its occupants. As the Institute’s provost explained, “When you round the corner and see the Stata Center, you will know you’re at MIT.”

Building 20, MIT

The growth in interdisciplinarity as a guiding principle for academic programs (Frost & Teodorescu 2004), institutional organization (Sa 2007), and research (National Academy of Science 2005) requires concurrent changes in institutional space planning and facilities use.

The construction of such facilities acknowledges that discrete functions of the university, frequently attributed to the disciplines and departments, are not generally conducive to interdisciplinary engagement.

Space, arguably one of the most finite and valuable resources for any university, embodies institutional mission and values as well as provides a unique social context for interdisciplinary activities.

Individuals respond to facilities and the environment, both in terms of attitude and behavior (Griffith 1994; Rapoport 1982).

While Building 20 and the Stata Center at MIT bear little resemblance in terms of appearance, each structure invokes the innovative efforts which characterize the university. The facilities represent intellectual creativity unrestrained by traditional institutional barriers.

The university has long been defined through a vertical, largely disciplinary organization of knowledge (Becher and Trowler 2001).

These vertical elements remained distinct in terms of organization, personnel, and location.

The reflection of these normative structures is seen not only in terms of academic journals, curriculum, and faculty hiring, but also in campus facilities and institutional planning.

Work tasks are arranged and completed within distinct disciplinary silos (Clark 1983).

In regards to the physical setting, the university is characterized through distinct facilities, each housing a different department or college. Often these departments are clustered near those from similar disciplines, creating disciplinary corridors across the university campus.

When defined as institutional symbols, these corridors convey meaning regarding the organization and emphasis placed on knowledge. At many universities, for example, the college of arts and sciences occupies a prominent facility in the middle of campus. Such locations reinforce the centrality of these disciplines to the campus culture and the education of undergraduate students.

By defining the institution’s physical space as a symbolic component of the organizational culture, the importance of space becomes clear.

Universities utilize their campuses to convey a sense of distinctiveness, history, and tradition.

A sweeping campus quad, for example, or libraries centered at the heart of campus are common physical characteristics expected of the American university.

Campus buildings serve as cultural symbols, and give meaning to the sense of place and purpose that defines the institution.

Space serves to embody the institution and what it means to its constituents (Low and Lawrence-Zuniga 2003). Because of the significance as cultural symbols, the attention given to architecture and campus space should be purposeful, well-planned, and further the institutional mission.

The emergence of interdisciplinary knowledge influences the normative disciplinary structure of the academy.

Instead of knowledge production occurring within separate, well-defined institutional structures, interdisciplinary efforts require involvement from individuals across the campus community.

The support of these evolving interdisciplinary frameworks, defined as a horizontal organization of knowledge, requires new organizational structures and physical spaces (COSEPUP 2004; Dill 1999; Hashimshony and Haina 2006).

Such initiatives include shifting physical symbols from those that are solely defined by the disciplines to those that recognize the collaborative, integrative nature of interdisciplinary efforts.

In terms of interdisciplinary space, the planning process requires the involvement of those faculty, researchers, students, and staff who are involved in the interdisciplinary project.

Those individuals who will use and define the space should be actively involved in its creation.

Perhaps of even greater significance in regards to interdisciplinary space and planning is the relationship between such efforts and the mission of the institution.

The institutional mission cannot simply be defined—rather, it is constructed through organizational, physical, and cultural efforts (Morphew and Hartley 2006). The effective planning and use of interdisciplinary space defines the innovative nature of the university.

By giving emphasis to interdisciplinary efforts through physical symbols, the university affirms the importance of such work to the institutional mission.

Physical symbols serve as frames of reference for members of the organization, an embodiment of often abstract components of the institution’s strategic plan or mission statement (Lefebvre 1991).

The research universities featured in this article represent the top-ranked American institutions in terms of federal research funding.

These universities define their organizational identity through innovative, interdisciplinary, and “cutting edge” research.