Nicholas Negroponte, Leon Groisser, Jerome Wiesner
The Architecture Machine Group and The Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT
Cambridge MA, USA
by Molly Wright Steenson
MIT’S ARCHITECTURE MACHINE GROUP (ARCH MAC), founded by Nicholas Negroponte and Leon Groisser in 1967, was a laboratory that meshed architecture, engineering, and computing in a new vision of architectural research and teaching. Department of Architecture and Planning Dean Lawrence Anderson sought to challenge traditional architectural pedagogy: the Beaux-Arts teaching method exercised what he called a “residual influence [that] remains as an incubus that dampens our enthusiasm for any panacea.” Anderson called for the department to look to other fields and collaborations, drawing attention to the “promise of new methodologies for problem solving, especially those supported by memory and retrieval systems and manipulative possibilities of the computer.” Arch Mac served as a response to Anderson’s challenge.
The lab was intentionally multidisciplinary: while located in the Department of Architecture, half of Arch Mac’s student researchers came from the Department of Electrical Engineering and encompassed both undergraduate and graduate student researchers. Arch Mac granted master’s and doctoral degrees, the only lab at MIT to do so. Similar to other labs and groups at MIT (and other major technical institutions) the majority of Arch Mac’s funding came from defense research contracts with the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA —later DARPA) and the Office of Naval Research; other funding came from non-defense sources such as the National Science Foundation and private corporations.
Teaching and research in the Arch Mac lab complemented one another. In addition to its use for funded research, the lab was the locus of classroom assignments in programming for the Department of Architecture and undergraduate and master’s student research (usually in support of lab research projects). Negroponte believed that as individuals who worked with both the tangible and the representational, architecture students needed different teaching methods than the abstract, symbolic techniques taught in computer science. “The student of architecture is an inherently tactile person,” he wrote in Soft Architecture Machines. “He is accustomed not only to working with his hands but also to physical and graphical manifestations; and he is accustomed to playing with those.” Learning to program and experiment with various input/output devices like tablets, light pens, CRTs and plotters provided students with “a way of thinking about thinking.”
This concept undergirded the “demo or die” ethos of the lab, where students continually demonstrated their projects to lab visitors, ensuring that the technology worked at least well enough to grant an idea of the project, even if they weren’t perfect. Projects such as the URBAN 5 computing system, designed by Negroponte and Groisser, grew out of the “Computer-Aided Urban Design” class they began teaching in 1968. Later projects, such as the Spatial Data Management System (starting in 1978) and the Media Room spawned masters theses and dissertations, such as the Aspen Movie Map, a proto-Google Map and Street View application that allowed its user to “drive” down streets in Aspen, Colorado, from an Eames chair equipped with joysticks in its armrests. These increasingly physical and spatial interfaces provided a locus for narrative in novel interfaces that blended the interests of architecture and engineering.
In 1985, Arch Mac folded into the MIT Media Lab. The choice of the term “media” referred to convergence, the increasing overlap of three industries: broadcast and motion pictures; print and publishing; and computers. It was the culmination of a seven-year, $40 million fundraising effort by Negroponte and former MIT President Jerome Wiesner, in which 40 corporations pledged their pre-commercial research budget. With the change of scale, architecture had been absorbed into a broader notion of media and convergence, of research writ large, forging a vision for the experience of the digital.