Construction plays the role of the subconscious.
—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
At the same time as this chapter attends to the foundational role of the production and power of lab space, it also initiates a refrain that appears across the entire project: despite the singularity, certainty, and individuality of the moniker “the lab,” labs have never been static, unchangeable, unitary entities with clear-cut histories. They are, and have always been, shaped by communities of people both inside and beyond their walls, by these same communities’ intellectual trajectories, and, of course, by the labs’ physical locations and configurations. Since lab space shapes and is shaped by its human denizens (whose own shaping of the lab space is both unconscious and intentional), readers will note many continuities between this chapter and chapter 4 of this book.
While much of our analysis of hybrid lab space necessarily draws on terminology and concepts from a range of disciplines (including history, science and technology studies, media history, philosophy, architecture, and design), two works have been particularly helpful to us. The first, Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space, provides a background to our investigations, as it furnishes us with conceptual parameters for thinking about space as a “mode of production” in which members of a society engage. Lefebvre also helps us to see our work as part of a project to produce a common language for understanding how space precedes and produces the subjects populating lab spaces.1 Lefebvre proposes a conceptual triad that’s helpful for thinking about the production of space:
- Spatial practice, or the “production and reproduction” of a given space and its subjects, as well as specific locations and their relation to various social formations. Spatial practice is what creates a given society’s social space.
- Representations of space, or what we write and say about these spaces, which is in turn tied to relations of production and how those relations establish order. This is the space of bureaucrats and planners—the “official” version of what social space is supposed to be.
- Representational spaces, or the “complex symbolisms” tied to “the clandestine or underground side of social life.”2 Representational spaces are spaces where actual lived experience takes place, including the unsanctioned areas for doings that cannot happen in the “official” areas.3
While we deal with representations of labs in discourse, Lefebvre’s “representational spaces,” we are also concerned with the practices, relations, and subjects that develop in the particular spaces of the hybrid lab.
The second work that informs this chapter is architect Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, written with Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein. Published just a few years after Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1974), A Pattern Language (1977) provides an extensive and clearly delineated set of architectural patterns that can aid in solving problems related to the organization of space. While they do occasionally cite laboratories as particular spatial entities, their work is most useful to us in terms of how it includes patterns that can form larger assemblages that include labs. According to Paul Dourish, a technical report circulated in 1993 by Mark Weiser (the so-called father of ubiquitous computing) on the spatial properties of Xerox PARC is the only known instance of a computer scientist using A Pattern Language to talk about lab space.4 Despite the rarity of the approach, the language and methodology of the work of Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein help us to articulate the significance of individual particularities of spatial design coupled with the relations between those particularities that form a lab environment.
Before we attend to lab space and its relations, we will address the contemporary trend of referring to assemblages that seem to lack any kind of bounded space (e.g., websites, ideas, and products) as “labs.” We are also interested in how assemblages that do have bounded space but do not resemble traditional science labs at all have also come to be referred to as “labs.” This discussion of naming is important, because it demonstrates that an analysis of lab space must begin with a determination of how and where particular communities delineate the inside and outside of their labs, as well as how that delineation (often arbitrary yet always important) defines what is possible within the lab’s confines. We then provide a brief commentary on some of the histories and historical narratives of spaces that existed before laboratories began to emerge in the sixteenth century. From the ninth century through the present moment, those spaces, which are often named and referred to as “laboratories,” provide evidence of how, both discursively and materially, spaces of technical knowledge production have always had blurry, porous boundaries. Moreover, we argue that both historical and contemporary examples of lab discourse show how blurry lab boundaries may be beneficial or detrimental, depending on the nature of the work involved and depending on attempts to control the boundaries between inside and outside the lab as a way to (in turn) control who has access to the lab (a textbook example of a knowledge monopoly). We subsequently provide in-depth case studies of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory (opened in 1876) and the MIT Media Lab (opened in 1985). Despite these labs’ implicit and explicit claims to being completely new and without historical precedent (a claim that is completely characteristic of many modern phenomena), both draw on and reconfigure the long history of lab spaces and their antecedents.
The contemporary uncertainty around what is and isn’t a lab historically finds an echo in Bruno Latour’s observations about the Janus-faced nature of contemporary science, with its black-boxed, hermetic practices facing one direction and the open controversies of “science in the making” facing the other. If this sort of doubleness characterizes contemporary scientific discourse in general, then it should come as no surprise that it also typifies lab discourse in particular.5 In our discussion of the MIT Media Lab (later in this chapter and then again in chapter 4), this double discourse is supple enough that it can describe a lab’s innovativeness, entrepreneurial spirit, and anti-institutionality (and even radicality) at the same time as it lays out how such labs are busy producing institutionality and various means and methods of control. Further, the Janus-faced functioning of contemporary lab discourse also depends on an opacity about what goes on within the lab’s space and spatial practices.
Building on Latour’s work, Robert E. Kohler pinpoints the ways in which a quality of “placelessness” is necessary to the practices that many modern labs use to establish their authority: “Placelessness marks lab-made facts as true not just to their local makers but to everyone, everywhere. It marks the lab as a social form that travels and is easy to adopt, because it seems rooted in no particular cultural soil but, rather, in a universal modernity.”6 As the following discussion of the Strategic Communication Laboratories shows, placelessness or opacity about space is sometimes strategically (and cynically) necessary, as placefulness would reveal the double discourse for what it is . . . at which point the entire edifice of the lab as a machine for the production of universal knowledge would effectively crumble. By contrast, as we illustrate in our discussion at the end of this chapter of the Media Archaeological Fundus, and our discussion of the ACTLab in chapter 4, Janus-faced lab discourse can also produce the inverse effect. Hybrid labs might appear to produce institutionality while they actually unsettle the structures of organization and control underlying such institutionality. In these instances, the placefulness of spatial practices is a must.
In short, the techniques that produce, organize, and account for lab space act as a barometer for other parts of the hybrid lab assemblage. How these techniques operate broadly implies assumptions about who is allowed access to the space and which knowledge practices appear as legitimate within that space.
In the Beginning . . . : Naming before Being
Before we tackle the particularities of the space inside a lab, we need to attend to how we delineate that space. What are the boundaries of the lab? What is the inside and what is the outside? Given the fairly recent proliferation of virtual labs, how do we delineate the inside and the outside of a lab that lacks a physical presence?
Part of the answer begins with a performative statement. Very often the answer to the question of where a lab begins and ends is that “this (whatever ‘this’ points to) is a lab because I say it is.” For example, within higher education we have come across numerous entities that identify as labs but whose existence is either partly or entirely virtual—entities such as the website Hook & Eye (dedicated to writings on “the realities of being women working in the Canadian university system”); SpiderWebShow.ca (a “practice-based network” for the performing arts in Canada); and the Queer Media Database (an online research and curatorial tool for Canadian and Québécois queer film). All of these entities may have physical meeting spaces associated with their activities, but they also all situate a substantial amount of their identity and their output online.7 While we can point to scholarship in media studies dating back at least as far as the 1980s which recognizes that online networks have their own unique spatiality, what’s interesting for us about this cluster of online labs is that most of the contributors live in geographical proximity to each other (in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in Canada), making it clear that even labs which appear to be labs in name only are part of and produce spatial relations.8 In this case, the spatiality of the physical and the virtual are in constant conversation with each other, such that the boundary separating the inside from the outside of these labs lies within an online network and within a network of social relations. The power to utter the performative sentence is also institutional. In the case of Hook & Eye and the Queer Media Database, professorial power bestows on someone the ability to declare something a lab. The space of the university makes the founders and editors of these websites professors, which in turn gives them the ability to designate their spaces (no matter how heterodox) as labs; the designation points to the long chain of space and discourse that is threaded together by power relations.
A lab is always a set of social relations, technologies, and inscription devices that includes the object of study, even the largest objects of study. Another example of how performative acts of naming delineate spatial existence comes from outside higher education, shortly before the total solar eclipse that took place in August 2017. A news outlet out of Northampton, Massachusetts, reported that University of Massachusetts Boston professor Kiersten Kerby-Patel and two George Mason University professors were going to use “the sky as a laboratory.” In order to monitor changes in the ionosphere during the eclipse, they organized a crowdsourced experiment to gather data from observers across the United States.9 Here, the space of the lab is the very sky itself, bounded not by walls, windows, or doors but by the horizon and Earth’s movement around the sun. Calling the sky a “lab” does the discursive work of providing coherent boundaries for the study of the solar eclipse, presumably along with a methodology for such study, such that this naming and delineation legitimize the findings of citizen scientists.
As we note in the Introduction, there is also a clear and obvious trend outside higher education to use “lab” to refer to anything from men’s grooming products to cocktail bars to department store displays. In these cases, contemporary lab discourse, which normally uses the trappings of lab space to derive its legitimacy, has abandoned spatiality altogether for the sake of pure symbolic content. Such double discourse connotes scientificity and legitimacy to market otherwise ordinary products.
Beyond the discourse of advertising, “lab” does often indicate some kind of bounded space. In such instances, the stakes are often much higher than whether customers will buy an item of clothing or a skincare product. For example, the “lab” in Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), the parent company to Cambridge Analytica, seemed to indicate a collection of linked office workers and spaces all dedicated to the study, tracking, and manipulation of public opinion and political will via an online platform such as Facebook. SCL, which described itself as a “global election management agency,” has been linked to so-called influence operations relating most recently to Brexit and the U.S. 2016 presidential elections. SCL was also linked to a series of stories that broke in 2017 and 2018 about the manipulation of psychometric data obtained from Facebook.10 While the SCL Group announced on May 1, 2018, that it was closing operations, its website and staff continue to operate. SCL Group’s now-virtual existence, combined with the fact that there has never been any publicly available documentation or account of its physical space, infrastructure, and daily operations, illustrates the stakes of a total lack of transparency about lab space and lab operations: an exploitation of both lab naming and lab black-boxing makes possible the control and manipulation of information on a global scale.
In some instances in the realm outside of higher education, capital coexists with and even supports a kind of self-conscious critique of rationality. (Toby Miller and George Yúdice have noted that this apparent contradiction is one of the hallmarks of “postmodern” cultural policy. In the name of social inclusion, many institutions routinely legitimize and fund individuals and groups that oppose them as a form of governing strategy.)11 The stakes in these cases are not so much about the exploitation and manipulation that a lack of transparency about space makes possible, but whether one can literally make space for playful, open-ended experimentation and/or education that has no particular investment in profit.
Take, for example, HICapacity, a hackerspace in Hawaii. Both its virtual and physical spaces meet a wide variety of community needs, and their arrangement reflects those needs. Edward Kim, the main contact for HICapacity, elaborates on the organization’s purposefully flexible and variable community-oriented goals:
At HICapacity, the organization’s goals influence and are influenced by its space. As Kim goes on to explain, HICapacity is both a virtual space that enables “meet-ups” and a community-funded physical space that lends itself to collaborative efforts. We include his thorough description of the space below because it delineates all three parts of Lefebvre’s conceptual triad for understanding space. It is itself a representation of space; it describes the organization’s spatial practice insofar as the space shapes and is shaped by the subjects occupying that space; and it also describes itself as a representational space for a whole range of lived experiences.
Membership fees go to paying rent on an office located at the “Manoa Innovation Center.” . . . The office itself is a cozy 400-ish square foot space with windows that face out the exterior of the building toward the street. This is great because it lets in a lot of sunlight and has windows that open to let out air. This is important because we do have movable soldering stations and although we do have a single fume extractor, an open window is also handy to have around if there is need for more than one soldering station. Moving on, we have lockers, two small desks for personal use, and one larger desk for hardware-specific work. There is also one conference-style desk that most people sit around during our events to not only work but converse with others as well. We feel that this setup allows people to freely work off to the side if they have a deadline, or join the group at the conference table for whatever discussion is happening . . . As for the items in the space—about a dozen office chairs of various brands, a few computers . . . a few monitors, a number of Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, robots of all shapes and sizes and brands, a bike rack . . . a bookshelf with many engineering-related books, and a lot of assorted cables. There’s also a single projector if anyone wants to throw something up for everything to look at or for movie nights. Lastly, there are many random microcontrollers and microchips, and one (working) 3D printer. The majority of these were donated or found on street corners. . . . The current infrastructure is adequate for most nights but on nights where there’s a large event happening, the biggest trouble is locating more chairs. There have been times where we’ve had to ask neighboring offices to donate chairs for larger events or unexpected crowds. . . . But given that membership funds just barely cover rent, and there’s no critical need, we get by and hope for more donations.13
Everything in and of the space matters: the square footage; the size and location of the windows; the nature, quantity, and organization of the furniture; the specific lab apparatus; the lab’s sources of funding and/or dependence on donations; the backgrounds of the lab’s denizens and visitors; and the type, size, and frequency of the events they host.
In some instances in the private sector, capital coexists with and supports not just rationality but a kind of self-conscious postcritique of rationality. Our final example in this section is simply called THE LAB—an event space attached to Ada’s Technical Books and Café in Seattle, Washington. This space serves as one more instance of an attempt to make room in the public realm for playful, open-ended experimentation. Its proprietors advertise THE LAB as a space that will give you “the feeling of old-science, meets modern inventiveness—with a dash of mystery in the mix. So you walk away having experienced something special—and hopefully having learned something new, maybe mysterious, and always fascinating.”14 THE LAB is part of a larger cluster consisting of a bookstore, a café, and a co-working space, all of which help support their goal of producing educational experiences within the constraints of the current cultural order. Yet THE LAB does not seem to be interested in invoking objectivity, science, futurity, or innovation; nor does it seem interested in the complete eradication of labness. Indeed, for co-owners Danielle and David Hulton, why not take advantage of the capaciousness of the term “lab” while playfully drawing attention to the ways in which labs have long been leveraged for the production of supposedly legitimate knowledge and instead invoke feeling, invention, and mystery?
The invocation of mystery in this context does not mean black-boxing the nature of the space along with what might be possible within it. While SCL is intentionally opaque about where its lab space is located and the precise nature of the activities that take place there, THE LAB is utterly transparent not only about its space but also about the sorts of spatial practices—activities, events, and relationships—that it makes possible. According to its website, THE LAB’s 545 square feet includes a completely stocked bar, a coat room, an in-house sound system and mic, Wi-Fi and high-speed internet access, air-conditioning and heat, and numerous flexible seating options. Their website even provides architectural plans outlining classroom-style seating for thirteen to fifteen people, theater-style seating for forty to forty-three people, and open-space seating also for forty to forty-three people. These diagrams illustrate the influence that the production of space has on who accesses lab space and how. Think, for example, about how the seating size and arrangements can accommodate certain body sizes over others, and how the location of the sound booth will likewise affect the experience of sound for people in the room.
What these examples show in concert is that, taken on their own, location, funding sources, or mission statements don’t necessarily indicate anything about whether a given lab seeks to be innovative, experimental, and radical or whether the orchestration of its everyday activities reflects its stated values. A more accurate measurement of the distance between the lab’s discourse and its actual goals and activities is the extent to which the lab self-consciously and transparently accounts for its organization of and responsiveness to space.
Histories and Historical Narratives of Laboratory Spaces
In spite of the bewildering range of things and arrangements called labs, hybrid labs around the globe are disarticulating the term from its current rootless commercialism and rearticulating it to indicate a heterogeneity of techniques, objects, and experiments. As we put it earlier, nearly all labs are Janus-faced. Janus was the Roman god of transitions and doorways; today’s hybrid labs are passages with connections to both the future and the past, and to both the inside and the outside of institutions. In order to develop a vocabulary and method that will allow us to think and talk about hybrid labs, the trick is to figure out to which pasts and which futures they look. In Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford described the labs that emerged in the early modern period as a hybrid of medieval spaces of knowledge production—“a new type of environment . . . combining the resources of the cell, the study, the library, and the workshop.”15 While we touch on monasteries, apothecaries, and labs in terms of how they are all part of a family of related situated practices, each space is also specific to the discourse network of its own time and place, even while they are all tied together in a longer continuity or genealogy.
Just as the boundaries of contemporary labs may be difficult to locate for a variety of reasons, medieval and early modern research spaces were also not clearly bounded, distinct places. But they were often connected to other, more established kinds of space, such as the monastery or the home. While many of the things that are necessary to make a lab already existed before modernity, they were not articulated in the manner that we imagine as “the modern lab,” nor were the environments in which they operated necessarily recognized as distinct. It’s important to avoid anachronism by not imposing the character of the modern laboratory onto such spaces, but it’s also crucial to be able to invoke these spaces in order to understand how a tension between the dictates of institutional power and the activities of actual individuals has always shaped the production of knowledge. The consequence of entirely excluding these spaces from consideration would be a perpetuation of what Harold Innis calls a “monopoly of knowledge”—that is, a set of limits on who is excluded and included from sanctioned lab spaces throughout the historical record and into the present moment.16 As a result, the historical narratives around lab space are often conflicted and dependent on the distinctions that scholars make, consciously or not, about what counts as legitimate practices for the production of knowledge. While our discussion of contemporary labs can attempt to measure the distance between a given lab’s statements about itself and its actual goals and activities as reflected in the availability of information on its space, most labs prior to the late nineteenth century did not usually account for themselves or their space in writing, so our discussion of early spaces of technical knowledge production looks instead at architectural plans, illustrations, and historical narratives to investigate the shifting, variable, and sometimes duplicitous nature of lab discourse.
Graeme Gooday introduces the notion that, given certain contingencies of gender and geography, “boundaries between laboratories and other spaces—especially domestic kitchens—could be permeable or nonexistent.” Therefore, “some spaces served as experimental laboratories without ever being designated as such.” He goes on to list the three primary modes of activity that historically took place in laboratories: “organic genesis, practical experimentation, and material manufacture.”17 Although Gooday does not mention the famous Plan of St. Gall—the never-realized architectural plan from 820–30 C.E. for an entire monastic community in Switzerland, which also stood as an ideal for nearly all Benedictine monasteries built thereafter—the plan does include spaces for all three modes of activities. Documents for the plan describe all the elements (or, in the terms of Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein, “patterns”) one would also find in a laboratory, but in different configurations and combinations as part of an abbey. They are articulated differently and named differently, and the discourse around them differs as well.
The Plan of St. Gall lays out a complex visual proposal for a community of 110 monks and 160 laypeople. Their interactions with each other and their various labors are carefully controlled via an imagined space that’s both open and closed—dedicated to contemplation, quiet, and learning but also amenable to the labor of making and doing. For example, consider the arcades in the plan; Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein remind us that such “covered walkways at the edge of buildings, which are partly inside, partly outside—play a vital role in the way that people interact with buildings” insofar as they “create an ambiguous territory between the public world and the private world.”18 Strategically placed architectural features create a dense, variable, and porous structure that would allow monks to exist in a central, enclosed inner cloister while still having access to surrounding buildings and services.
The Plan of St. Gall also specifies the production of a space dedicated to a range of labors and laborers. For example, the health and medicine buildings to the northeast of the cloister include an infirmary complex; a house for physicians that is connected to a pharmacy and a sick ward; a house for bleeding; two bathhouses; and a (highly organized, methodically designed) medicinal herb garden, all of which are also spatially arranged to enable very specific traffic patterns among the abbot, physicians, monks, and serfs. Such arrangements put entities that would later be extracted from the complex and become self-contained into close relation with each other, much like apothecaries and pharmacies.19 Similar structures and traffic patterns also exist in the buildings to the west of the inner cloister that contain connected workshop spaces for saddlers, shoemakers, shield makers, sword grinders, turners, curriers, blacksmiths, and goldsmiths. These workshops are arranged around two central fireplaces, with dwelling quarters on the outer edges of the complex.
Just because the Plan of St. Gall was never built and remains in the realm of the ideal doesn’t mean that it didn’t do real work; it is a textbook example of imaginary media in this respect. Many spaces of knowledge production drew on it for inspiration, notably the Benediktbeuern Abbey in Bavaria, Germany, originally a monastery of the Benedictine Order built in 739–40 C.E. and rebuilt numerous times thereafter. As Myles W. Jackson argues, the architecture of the cloister shaped and was shaped by the three philosophical pillars of the Rule of Saint Benedict: labor, silence, and secrecy.20 To underscore the historical impact of the cloister’s architecture, Jackson also shows how the particularities of this space (beyond the library and the garden) and its use for a thousand-year-old tradition in the manufacturing, cutting, and polishing of glass influenced Joseph Von Fraunhofer’s eighteenth-century manufacture of achromatic lenses for telescopes. Specifically, Jackson provides an extensive description of the space within and around the cloister to make clear that other spaces for the production of technical knowledge had existed for many centuries prior to the proliferation of laboratories or “elaboratories” in the sixteenth century.
The articulation of such spaces to larger communities, especially ones that included sites of material production, was also vital. For example, the Benediktbeuern Abbey cloister was a large, well-lit space “located in the midst of a large forest, where wood for fuel was in abundant supply.” Also, “a quarry of quartz, a key ingredient of glass, was only ten kilometers away,” no doubt co-emergent with the fact that Benedictine monks and artisans from the surrounding communities were well versed in optical theory and practice and, in later centuries, possessed “lavish collections of physical instruments and texts dealing with glass manufacture and optical theory.” Even the large, open space of the cloister itself was perfectly suited for experimenting with rays of light emitted from sodium lamps.21 Despite the fact that all of the elements for the singular entity that will later be dubbed a “laboratory” are here, they are articulated differently, and the assemblage of the abbey is distinct in its own right.
This discussion of the architectural features of medieval monasteries demonstrates not only that there are numerous, unaccounted-for genealogies of spaces related to the modern laboratory but also that these spaces have their own histories and other trajectories; as such, tracing the contemporary lab’s relative beginnings is far from straightforward. There were, for example, anatomical theaters dating back as far as 1594 in Padua, Italy, that were designed to educate the public about human anatomy through dissections. These dissections took place on a central, sunken table, surrounded by tiered viewing areas. Around the perimeter of the space, there was an array of skeletons with instructional signage. Such theaters rearticulated the boundaries between public and private in a manner different from the monasteries, in this case bringing the public into a clearly defined space and turning dissections into pedagogical performances rather than the more informal, loose mode of instruction that might have taken place in abbey workshops. However, while the architectural spaces and possibilities for observation for the public are a key form of this constellation of knowledge, the notion of “public” was very limited and, in this case, might only include male students and faculty.
The history of apothecaries and their work spaces (both of which are designated by the word apothecary, highlighting the strength of the articulation between space, technique, and people in this instance) also deserves mention. As Maurice Crosland explains, the earliest accounts of apothecaries date back to ancient Babylon. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in England, they had attained enough stature to form a professional organization. Most were dedicated to the manual preparation and sale of medicines to physicians and patients. Like the denizens of the anatomical theaters, apothecaries required a well-lit space with windows and a central table for preparation and demonstration of their medicines. They also usually featured abundant shelves and cupboards for storage, with counters running along the lower half of the shelves, creating another family resemblance to a domestic kitchen. While apothecaries were eventually viewed as inferior to other sites of experimentation because of their reliance on manual work, this emphasis on labor puts them in the same lineage of spaces as the Benedictine abbeys. It also anticipates the reversal that took place in university life in the coming centuries to include rather than shun laboratories as places of hands-on, physical work.22 That said, apothecaries were distinct from later university-based laboratories in that they served a clear public and profit-oriented function and not an educational function.23
We have already noted that many scholars of science history consider the sixteenth century the official point at which entities called “laboratories” start to proliferate, particularly as alchemical laboratories.24 If we are to include the many sites at which experimental work took place in the late seventeenth century, we need to include, as Steven Shapin points out, a variety of other venues:
[the] instrument maker’s shop . . . the coffeehouse, the royal palace, the rooms of college fellows, and associated collegiate and university structures. But by far the most significant venues were the private residences of gentlemen or, at any rate, sites where places of scientific work were coextensive with places of residence, whether owned or rented. The overwhelming majority of experimental trials, displays, and discussions that we know about occurred within private residences.25
However, as Ursula Klein writes, while Shapin’s intervention regarding the private residences of gentleman natural philosophers in the history of laboratory spaces is important, it requires some tweaking. Klein is deeply invested in the material culture of laboratories, and she argues that Shapin’s focus on experimental philosophy and epistemology is too narrow to provide a workable account of how experimental investigation became linked to modern labor practices and commercial innovation (a crucial topic for the history of media labs especially). Like us, she is deeply interested in the “hybrid experts” steeped in the practical, hands-on business of material production as well as the weightier philosophical concerns of the gentleman scientists.26
If the history of labs is always told solely in terms of those entities properly called “labs,” and if that same history is always coupled with assertions about what does or does not count as a lab, then that history is not only significantly foreshortened but also incomplete. Such a truncated history inaccurately legitimizes some techniques for the production of knowledge over others. If we are going to make sense of the history of labs or of contemporary hybrid labs, we need to juxtapose that history with traditions, practices, techniques, and perspectives from other times and places. And we probably need to venture into the literatures of other disciplines in order to do so. When Crosland goes on to assert that “It is not enough to bring apparatus into an ordinary room to make it into a laboratory” and that, for example, “one would not describe a room as a kitchen unless it had special facilities for cooking,” not only is he overlooking the very wide range of doings that might fall under the category of “practical science,” but he is neglecting the very wide range of things that have counted as part of an apparatus as well as the long history of spaces that served as labs.27 By contrast, we argue that the spaces of the hybrid labs we explore in this book need to be considered in terms of a much richer and longer set of histories than a certain line of thinking in the history of science might lead us to believe. In other words, contemporary hybrid labs are not merely part of a genealogy of modern research university or R&D labs, but also of various other spaces of making and doing, of interacting, and of imagined communities.
In later abbeys, such as the fourteenth-century iteration of Glastonbury Abbey, we can see the continuation and gradual isolation of a space called the “abbot’s kitchen.” This was both a more specialized and more elaborate space than the cluster of workshop spaces in the Plan of St. Gall. It was attached to, but still separate from, the abbot’s main residence, and featured four fireplaces for roasting, boiling, baking, and washing. There were smoke outlets above each fireplace, which provided necessary ventilation, and a substantial lantern. Consider the fact that women have, of course, long been relegated to the kitchen as the heart of the domestic sphere, but also that, as Alix Cooper points out, in early modern times, “kitchens and basements or root cellars formed improvised laboratories for women to tinker with and write down medical recipes.”28 However, over the coming centuries, women saw the gradual appropriation and renaming of the kitchen as laboratory, which meant they were essentially told they might belong in a kitchen, the kitchen might be a lab, and a lab might even be in a kitchen, but a lab is not for them.
In the 1860s the University of Oxford decided to extend their science museum by attaching a new chemistry building to it. Informally, they called it a laboratory, but it was modeled on and named after the abbot’s kitchen because of its “chimney-based architecture.” This kitchen/laboratory space—emphatically not a domestic kitchen occupied by women, separate from but connected to a science museum at a major institution of higher learning—is an appropriate spatial allegory for the genealogical relationship between the modern lab and earlier articulations. The naming and architectural strategies at work here are shot through with power relations, as always. Women (who had in effect been working in kitchen-cum-laboratories for most of their lives) were not allowed to attend Oxford until the 1870s. At the time the abbot’s kitchen opened, women were allowed inside physics and biology teaching laboratories, but they were not permitted to undertake research in any of these laboratories, as they were not considered actual members of the university community and could not take exams or graduate until 1920.29 By 1881 the rearticulation was complete, as the field of metallurgy used “kitchen” as a synonym for “laboratory,” denoting the “space between the fire and flue bridges of a reverberatory furnace in which work is performed.”30 Delineating the discursive, spatial, and technical connections between kitchen and laboratory reminds us once again how the spaces that preceded laboratories were not necessarily separate and isolated. There is a complex history of gender and power relations behind the many turns and twists involved in establishing labs as separate, special places for chemical experimentation.31
By and large, it is not until the nineteenth century that we have access to historical records of lab denizens and directors documenting or describing lab space.
According to MIT’s Norbert Wiener, Thomas Edison’s greatest invention was the industrial research laboratory. In this section we draw on the astonishing amount of archival, historical, and critical material on and about Edison and his various laboratories, especially the Menlo Park laboratory, which launched in 1876. Menlo Park was an “invention factory” that was the largest private laboratory in the United States in the 1870s, and it simultaneously built on and departed in significant respects from the long tangle of kitchens, apothecaries, theaters, and chemistry labs from which it emerged. While Menlo Park drew on elements from earlier research spaces such as workshops and libraries, its dedication to the “rapid and cheap development of a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so” was deeply modern.32
After being fired from Western Union in 1867 and subsequently working independently on patenting inventions, Edison opened a shop (which he did not yet refer to as a laboratory) in 1870 in Newark, New Jersey. There he developed the Universal Stock Ticker, numerous types of telegraph systems, an electric pen, and more. This first “shop” was a series of rooms on the top floor of a padlock factory a block off Main Street in what is now Orange, New Jersey. Once Edison started looking for a larger, alternative location for what he would eventually call a laboratory, he found that Menlo Park was, by contrast, secluded and spacious; it granted him the opportunity to build not just a lab but an entire surrounding community dedicated to invention. According to Michael J. Gall, when Edison chose Menlo Park as a location for his lab it consisted of only a few homes and dirt roads. It was relatively inexpensive and convenient for him to simply purchase seven adjacent property lots (all of which set the stage for buildings that could signal grandeur because the lots were on a hillcrest overlooking the surrounding rural area) for $5,200 from Menlo Park Homestead Association trustee George Goodyear.33
Edison used six of these lots for the laboratory complex and one for his personal home. According to Edison’s longtime laboratory assistant Francis Jehl:
Menlo Park was at that time nothing more than a spot on the map. Situated several miles below Rahway on the Pennsylvania Railroad, its principal attraction was a quiet atmosphere of peace. . . . He bought the site on December 29, 1875, and then purchased another tract nearby, 150 x 300 feet, for his residence. . . . The long gray laboratory had to serve as both office and shop for Edison, as well as experimental headquarters. Power was furnished by an upright steam engine in the rear room on the ground floor. The place was lighted by illuminating gas. . . . A plank walk bordered its edge from the laboratory a distance of 850 feet to the Edison home.34
In this description there is already a family resemblance to the Plan of St. Gall and actual Benedictine abbeys in terms of the importance of sources of power and/or heat, of a series of work spaces that are flexible and configurable enough to accommodate multiple purposes, and of the adjacency of a nearby domestic sphere. These historical precedents also come into view once we start looking at photographs of the lab complex as a whole. In one photograph, presumably from around 1876, the main rectangular structure that Jehl calls the “long gray laboratory” has white clapboard siding and abundant natural light because of the twenty or so windows on all faces of the building, and it is surrounded by a picket fence such that the lab resembles both a church and a schoolhouse.35 It’s also worth noting that, in an image in Jehl’s Menlo Park Reminiscences, the boundaries between inside and outside the lab have not yet been clearly constructed. The image includes a bear chained to a tree near the front entrance of the lab—a fact that would be more strange if it weren’t for the fact that demarcations of what lies inside and outside a lab can also be mapped onto attempts to demarcate where (supposedly wild, uncontrollable) nature ends and (supposedly controlled) culture begins. In another photograph from roughly the same period we can see that the bear and tree have been removed and that a large machine shop, office building, and carpenters’ and glassblowing sheds had been added around the original main building.36 A handful of houses surrounded Edison’s house and the main Menlo Park complex where his employees lived. The entire town was, “in short, Edisonia, and nothing else.”37
While we are considering the external structure of Edisonia, it’s worth invoking one of the patterns that Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein dedicate to the “Building Complex.” Edison’s decision to build a complex rather than a monolithic structure resonates backward to the Benedictine monasteries and forward to the designs of later labs. In Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein’s words, “when human organizations are housed in enormous, undifferentiated buildings, people stop identifying with the staff who work there as personalities and think only of the institution as an impersonal monolith, staffed by personnel.”38 By contrast, a complex allows for the manifestation of “the actual social facts of the situation. At low densities, a building complex may take the form of a collection of small buildings connected by arcades, paths, bridges, shared gardens, and walls.”39 The success of this design lies in its power to persuade lab denizens to wholly identify with the lab and passionately work long hours. Accounts from workers describe how working in the lab was a “strenuous but joyous life for all, physically, mentally and emotionally. We worked long night hours—frequently to the limit of human endurance.”40 Similar statements appear in lab discourse to this day, notably around “the crunch” involved in working on new media campuses.
In André Millard’s elaboration on the atmosphere in the lab, there is also a clear implication not only that Edison designed a lab complex to encourage complete worker identification but also that this identification specifically supports male bonding in a way that very much anticipates the spaces of contemporary tech/start-up culture, like MIT’s Media Lab, which feature pool tables, lounge chairs, and couches for exactly the same reasons: “Experimenting at the first invention factory at Menlo Park was punctuated by gaming, practical jokes, and rowdy singsongs at the large organ that filled one end of the building. . . . Far from being sedate, intellectual environments with library quiet, Edison’s laboratories were noisy, crowded places that often seemed on the verge of uproar.”41
While Millard is right to point out the influence of “machine shop culture” in the Menlo Park laboratory and the flexibility to produce a wide range of tools and parts that a shop offered, there is a much longer, deeper history of spaces that served the same purpose in terms of flexibility and porous boundaries. The latter comes more clearly into view when studying the layout of the first floor of the lab building. To begin with, the main entrance is on the side of the rectangular complex facing the street, so the lab is at least partly open to and part of the outside world. As Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein’s description of the pattern for “Main Entrance” indicates, the position of the front door controls the “movement to and from the building, and all the other decisions about layout flow from this decision.” Everyone using this primary access point had to immediately pass Edison’s office on the right of the entranceway, establishing Edison as the most important aspect of the lab. To access the rest of the complex, visitors had to continue through several open rooms divided by function before they could access the machine shop at the back.42 The first long room contains on one side a hydraulic press, several cabinets containing models of instruments and early inventions, and then shelves of batteries and a table for a galvanometer. On the opposite side of the long room and beyond Edison’s office were stairs to the second floor of the lab, more cabinets, an “analytical nook” (as it’s labeled in the floor plan that appears in Jehl’s Menlo Park Reminiscences), table, and sink.43 This large front room flows into the machine shop at the back, which brings in more conventional aspects of lab spaces such as a chimney, furnace, fume chamber, sink, benches, tables, and abundant machinery along the floor and ceiling for experimentation. Just as lab discourse at the Menlo Park complex encouraged worker identification with their place of employment as an incentive to labor for long hours, the spatial configuration of the main laboratory building reinforces that ethos, as it is both open and closed, fluid and segmented according to the type of work. Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein make sense of the power of this particular spatial configuration for encouraging utmost efficiency via a pattern for “Self-Governing Workshops and Offices,” which is not so much self-governing as a kind of local fiefdom or seigneury:
A man enjoys his work when he understands the whole and when he is responsible for the quality of the whole. He can only understand the whole and be responsible for the whole when the work which happens in society . . . is undertaken by small self-governing human groups; groups small enough to give people understanding through face-to-face contact, and autonomous enough to let the workers themselves govern their own affairs.44
It is important to note here that from the gender assumptions in “a man enjoys his work” onward, the authors’ explication is deeply modern. Despite the importance of Menlo Park to later media labs, internet start-ups, and other hybrid spaces, its underlying assumptions about where and how work takes place and how it can be governed do not hold in the work “spaces” of a twenty-first-century digital networked culture any more than would the assumptions of a medieval abbot about how work would take place in his abbey. Every intellectual genealogy is always such a series of long continuities and abrupt breaks.
On to the second floor. New York Daily Graphic writer William Croffut describes this floor as being “walled with shelves of bottles, like an apothecary shop—thousands of bottles of all sizes and colors. In the corner is a cabinet organ. On benches and tables are batteries of all descriptions, microscopes, magnifying glasses, crucibles, retorts, an ash-covered forge, and all the apparatus of a chemist.”45 (In chapter 2 we elaborate on how lab apparatus prepares knowledge because its mechanisms, arrangements, spaces, and situations define what counts as knowledge.) Croffut’s comparison of the Menlo Park lab to apothecaries points once again to the long spatial genealogy that is at play here. What makes the space at Menlo Park historically distinct is the way that familiar patterns from arcades, paths, flexible and configurable workshop spaces, furnaces, and kitchen areas were extracted and reconfigured in order to embody late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century discourses of innovation, industry, and workplace efficiency. Although the individual elements may seem familiar, and may even bear the same names, their positions in the larger assemblages of their own past and our present are different, so they enable different practices and the production of different kinds of knowledge and different ideologies.
The MIT Media Lab also has a long history of capitalizing on its appearance of newness as a way to assert its ontological newness, despite the fact that it too draws on the long genealogy that informed modern labs and informs many contemporary hybrid labs.46 It is particularly important for our book as a whole, because it opened as one of the first university-based (but largely privately funded) interdisciplinary media labs dedicated to hands-on practice. Partly housed in a school of architecture, and designed by internationally renowned architecture firm I. M. Pei and Partners, this lab, more than any others, was intended to be spatially responsive to and reflective of the work going on inside it. The MIT Media Lab exemplifies the ways in which hybrid labs in general and media labs in particular are distinct and porous, private and public in their spatial configurations, simultaneously embracing and rejecting their historical precedents.
The MIT Media Lab is a complex entity consisting of many labs grouped under the singular name of “the media lab”; it is, in fact, more a lab of labs than a single entity. It is constantly evolving and has exerted considerable influence on the creation of media labs around the world. Our analysis of the naming and space of the MIT Media Lab, however, must by necessity be focused and brief in this chapter, although we discuss it again in chapter 4 in terms of the history of its founding, its leadership, and its politics. Our discussion here focuses on the exterior design and interior space of the first media lab building, which was completed in 1985 (E15), with some attention to the second building, which was completed in 2010 (E14), as a way to set the stage for our later, more extended analysis.
The delineation of the MIT Media Lab as a lab begins with a heady mixture of institutional policy, emergent cultural techniques, lab discourse, and the ability of those in power to bring something into existence by naming it. In the early 1980s, Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder and director of the Architecture Machine Group (AMG) at MIT, began working with MIT’s president, Jerome Weisner. Their goal was to launch a lab that built on the ethos and the success of the AMG but also embraced interdisciplinary collaboration and rapid prototyping of communication technologies rather than relying on a more staid, methodical, theoretically and historically informed academic approach. As Stewart Brand put it in The Media Lab, his popular mid-1980s account of the lab:
Students and professors at the Media Laboratory write papers and books and publish them, but the byword in this grove of academe is not “Publish or Perish.” In Lab parlance it’s “Demo or Die”—make the case for your idea with an unfaked performance of it working at least once, or let somebody else at the equipment. “We write about what we do,” comments Director Negroponte, “but we don’t write unless we’ve done it.”47
Naming this entity “the Media Lab” signaled a desire to position it as something new in higher education. Unlike the disciplinary implications in the name “Architecture Machine Group,” Negroponte claimed “media” belonged to no discipline (though the discipline of communication studies in Canada, which was well established by that point, would take exception). Certainly the lab’s “demo or die” mantra signaled its departure from traditional modes of academic research.48 Lab discourse is hard at work here, trying to establish itself as exceptional.
While the MIT Media Lab’s claim to novelty might hold up if we compared it to the vast majority of its contemporary labs in higher education, its infrastructural funding model was nothing new at MIT. The university has long embraced funding from ARPA, DARPA, and large corporations—think of the Radiation Laboratory from the 1940s and the Lincoln Laboratory from the 1950s, the latter of which still exists today.49 The MIT Media Lab was a continuation of the longer legacy of art and technology labs at MIT (such as the Center for Advanced Visual Studies) that stood as central parts of the Cold War incorporation of artists into the university sector.50 The naming of the lab also signaled that it wanted to position itself as part of the lineage of private-sector technology labs (such as Menlo Park, Bell Labs, and Xerox PARC).
The Janus-faced aspect of lab discourse is at work here too. At the same time as the MIT Media Lab was trying to align itself with the private sector, it was also regularly and consistently making claims to avant-garde radicality. In Negroponte’s 1995 best seller, Being Digital, he recounts the following:
The original concept for the Media Lab was to take both human interface and artificial intelligence research in new directions. The new wrinkle was to shape them by the content of information systems, the demands of consumer applications, the nature of artistic thought. The idea was marketed to the broadcasting, publishing, and computer industries as the convergence of the sensory richness of video, the information depth of publishing, and the intrinsic interactivity of computers. . . . As in 1863, when the Paris art establishment declined to let the Impressionists into its official show, the founding faculty members of the Media Lab became a Salon des Refusés and had one of their own, in some cases too radical for their academic department, in some cases too extraneous to their department, and in one case with no department at all. . . . We came together in the early 1980s as a counterculture to the establishment of computer science.51
Despite the historical continuities between the Menlo Park laboratory and the MIT Media Lab, much of the latter’s discursive identity hangs on its self-proclaimed assertions about its countercultural status and its belief in a philosophy not just of interdisciplinarity but of antidisciplinarity.52 For example, following in the footsteps of previous MIT Media Lab directors, from Negroponte to Walter Bender and Frank Moss, all of whom wrote books that uniformly tout the lab’s unconventional methods and wild successes, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe’s 2016 Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future begins with a curious disavowal of any influence by Edison. Ito and Howe criticize Edison for his lack of foresight in merely inventing the phonograph without thinking to invent the recording industry, as did Eldridge Reeves Johnson. They eventually move on to generic assertions about how “the lab . . . [has] always been something of an island for misfit toys” and even more generic, ahistorical assertions about how, as a result of its supposed countercultural status, “the culture of creative disobedience that draws innovators to Silicon Valley and the Media Lab is deeply threatening to hierarchical managers and many traditional organizations.”53
Given the lab’s consistent discourse about its exceptionality over the last thirty-five years, it should not be as astonishing as it is that, when we spoke with the current associate director of the lab, Hiroshi Ishii, in 2017, he asserted the following:
I have no idea what you’re talking about with the general term “media.” . . . Also some people use the same name . . . it is copyright infringement probably. I have no argument, but . . . you’re the first person to use “media” as a general term. So it’s confusing. . . . If your name is Lori, it’s very important. It’s attached to you. And the Media Lab is attached to here. So, if you can clarify, you’re talking about a general laboratory, about media research, versus MIT Media Lab. . . . I encourage you to carefully use the term “media lab” because otherwise it confuses not only me but also the audience. It’s very serious.54
Under U.S. and Canadian law, of course, a name cannot be copyrighted (though it can be trademarked), so this is an assertion, not an argument (“I have no argument, but . . .”): an exercise of power in an attempt to control larger and more ambiguous cultural meanings via a well-established version of lab discourse with hefty institutional backing. The MIT Media Lab was successful in its use of this strategy for many years, though, as we will see, cracks have appeared in the monolith.
As we noted earlier, there are a number of labs that have no physical space and that may simply be a group of people with common interests (whether intellectual or profit-oriented). We also noted the number of historical entities that were only referred to as labs if their denizens were male scientists. The space of the MIT Media Lab bears a strong resemblance to those historical entities that explicitly referred to themselves as labs in order to give it a certain coherence or make it resonate with a particular lineage of labs. Like Menlo Park, the MIT Media Lab contains many open, closed, and porous spaces for hands-on experimentation: a wood shop; a metal shop; areas for spare parts; a kitchen; an area for recreation and socializing; and administration offices. Unlike Menlo Park, it also has a lecture hall as well as designated areas for exhibitions, receptions, and conferences. All the same, given its fairly obvious ties to historical precedents in both name and spatial design, it is odd that its discourse desires complete ownership of the term “media lab,” despite the existence all over the world of myriad other, unaffiliated media labs.
Regardless of Ishi’s reaction, the MIT Media Lab has in fact been remarkably successful in becoming practically and unquestionably synonymous with a lab dedicated to, as Brand puts it, “inventing the future.” This is partly because of a dogged thirty-year marketing campaign whose success we can measure by the fact that almost any discussion of “the future” of technology is a discussion about some project at the MIT Media Lab.
The specific way in which the MIT Media Lab discourse is double—claiming to be part of a long lineage of labs while at the same time positioning itself as utterly new and singular—is evident in its documentation, design, and use of its space. As we noted above, the MIT Media Lab was initially housed in a four-story, cube-like modernist building (E15) designed by I. M. Pei and Partners. In an attempt to point to its long-standing dedication to interdisciplinary or “antidisciplinary” collaboration between artists, architects, and engineers, the exterior of the building is reminiscent of both graph paper and Piet Mondrian’s grid paintings, as it is covered with square, white metal panels with primary-colored lines wrapping around the length of the tiles. But, as the authors of Artists and Architects Collaborate attest, because of the cube-like structure’s “strong and definite character,” pronounced even more by the flat, metal panels, the building has a way of immediately communicating self-containment and inaccessibility. They continue: “Very little that happens inside the building can be seen from outside, nor for the most part are the activities inside the building visible to one another. The building gives the sense of a set of isolated boxes packed one within another.”55 It is intentionally both isolated (or at least gives the appearance of being isolated) and open to the public, albeit only to that very specific demographic of the public involved in venture capital.
The lab expanded to a second building in 2010. The majority of its current discourse seems to disavow E15 (referring only to the six floors/163,000 square feet of space in E14 rather than the four floors/114,000 square feet in E15) in favor of celebrating the supposed transparency offered by the new building’s glass-and-steel exterior. As the campus news outlet put it shortly after the building opened, “The aluminum and glass curtain walls that surround the steel-framed building extend the feeling of openness and transparency to the exterior and make the building appear like a luminous jewel at night.”56 While the building might evoke the feeling of openness, opacity masquerades as transparency in that all of the windows are covered with a tight metal mesh on the outside and, during the daytime, blinds on the inside. (We elaborate on this paradox of opacity masquerading as transparency in chapter 4.) From an outsider’s perspective, the seams between the old and new buildings materially embody the lab’s discursive shift from appearing more closed and secretive to wanting to appear more open.
Despite the physical (dis)continuity between the two buildings, the message embedded in the distinctly different style of the newer building is a disavowal of the earlier one. The tension between openness and inaccessibility continues as one enters the atrium of E15 and is instantly brought into an eerily quiet, empty, and forbidding space that’s punctuated only by skylights above, one small balcony for each floor, and a few interior windows. Nearly ten years after writing his breathless account of the lab in The Media Lab, even Brand had to admit that the “Media Lab’s atrium cuts people off from each other. There are three widely separated entrances . . . three elevators, few stairs, and from nowhere can you see other humans in the five-story-high space. Where people might be visible, they are carefully obscured by internal windows of smoked glass.”57 Originally, you would have found the majority of the lab’s denizens in a structure simply called “the Cube.” While the exterior and the atrium of E15 are notably unwelcoming and devoid of any evidence of human activity, the Cube is an open, two-floor structure embedded deep in the heart of the lab. Thanks to the office cubicles located peripherally around a large, central open space that could be and was used as a place to “work, live and eat,” openness and accessibility is turned inward.58 Certainly this spatial design is reminiscent of, though not identical to, its predecessors insofar as it’s effectively closed to the outside world and open as well as flexible largely to and for its inside world. The design of the Cube appears, at first glance, to be a direct answer in the affirmative to a question Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein pose in the pattern called “Flexible Office Space”: “Is it possible to create a kind of space which is specifically tuned to the needs of people working, and yet capable of an infinite number of various arrangements and combinations within it?”59 In many ways, however, the Cube also indicates the answer to the foregoing question is no. There are limits on spatial possibility; infinite flexibility is a postmodern fantasy that is driven by the desires of management (for a rhizomatic “flat” neoliberal workplace) rather than the needs of individuals in a building.
Greg Tucker, director of facilities at the lab from 1985 to 2014, described the Cube as follows in our interview with him:
Architecturally, it’s a raised floor that doesn’t fill the space, so you get this two-story thing. That idea is just about wrapping as many people as possible around a social space. . . . In the early days of computing . . . the way mainframes worked was you had a room down the hall that was air conditioned to the moon and back. And there was a giant machine in there. And there was a room next to it where all the terminals were, those old VT100s and stuff. And in order to do any work, everyone had to be in that room, not in their office. The offices became somewhat of an afterthought, a place to throw your coat. And because everyone was in the same room, lots of interactions went on. And Negroponte was just going, “This is cool. This is the way this is supposed to work.” So that’s the model. All these lab spaces that you see, and it’s more obvious in the other building, it’s a bunch of offices wrapped around an open space that everyone’s supposed to share.60
The Cube was designed to insist on (more than allow) interactions and collaborations around specific technologies.
Looking ahead to chapter 2, it’s worth noting the roles that other parts of the extended hybrid lab model—especially apparatus—play in the production of lab space. The people in the lab adapt to the dictates of the lab machinery, despite the discomfort it can produce, and this practice becomes formalized as policy. Further spaces develop according to this logic, where machines have as much as or more agency than the people working with them, and the lab produces different kinds of subjects and different kinds of knowledge accordingly. Even when the need for a terminal room went away in the era of the personal computer, Tucker maintains that Negroponte insisted on remaining dedicated to the model of an open workplace:
It was all about this very simple thing: use space to force people to consider this as a collaborative exercise. . . . When he built the new building, and he put glass on the walls in every office, people on the design side were like, “Well, what about their privacy?” Negroponte’s response was classic. He was like, “I’m not offering these people privacy. I’m offering them an opportunity in a collaborative enterprise that was built according to our rules.”61
Once more, there is a tight fit between the design of E15, Negroponte’s views on spatial design, and Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein’s Pattern Language. The last asserts that “the totally private office has a devastating effect on the flow of human relationships within a work group, and entrenches the ugly quality of office hierarchies”; thus, one should always “avoid closed off, separate, or private offices. Make every workroom, whether it is for a group of two or three people or for one person, half-open to the other workgroups and the world immediately beyond it.”62 What they miss is the way in which even after office space is reconfigured, power and hierarchy can and do reconfigure themselves on another level.
Now that the lab has expanded to E14, the Cube is almost completely empty of any equipment or people, yet the practical difficulties in what Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein call “half-open” spaces come to the fore in different parts of E15. On the opposite side of E15’s third floor, the tension between the lab’s much-touted openness—partly expressed via decades of assertions about the wildly creative and disobedient collaborations taking place there—and its closedness is striking in the ways that the lab’s denizens have attempted to undermine the original building’s spatial design and infrastructure. For example, Ethan Zuckerman, a former director of the Center for Civic Media housed in the MIT Media Lab until August 2020, had an office with a door that cannot close, as his predecessor removed the door’s closer because of “Latour’s argument about the agency of the door closer as the embodiment of certain systems about what is supposed to be open and closed.”63 After pointing out the idiosyncrasies of how the physical space of the lab ends up embodying research projects, and after touring the seemingly open and glassed work space outside of his office, Zuckerman asked us to answer our own question: “Is this an open or closed work space? It’s mandated to be an open work space . . . [by] the powers that be because we are supposed to look busy and active and energetic. But when students are trying to get work done, they cocoon.”64 The theme of undermined openness also continues throughout the space via wall-less work spaces dominated by large meeting tables and surrounded by panels that have been hung up to create a very small measure of privacy or (ultimately ineffective) boundedness.
It is also worth mentioning that, three years after our interview with Zuckerman about his office and the MIT Media Lab, on his last day at MIT he published a blog post detailing yet more idiosyncrasies of his office space—such as how the air-conditioning unit in his office had been disabled as part of a research project undertaken by the previous tenant and the years it took before the problem could be fixed. Toward the end of the post, he also describes some of the more wonderful and fraught things he witnessed through the enforced openness of his office door:
Late one night, I saw a young woman walk past my door wearing a massive pair of delicate, filigreed copper angel wings. When I stopped her to inquire, she explained that the wings were attached to a Peltier junction, which rested between her shoulders. As she radiated heat, the Peltier junction cooled her off and generated electric power in the process. The copper wings served as a heat sink. It was one of the most beautiful projects I’ve ever seen. Only tonight, writing this note to you, did I realize that she’d solved the same problem our roommate [the previous tenant] was obsessed with, albeit more poetically. The young woman left the Media Lab after two years here to pursue a startup. But she also left because a man in her lab began working on the same problem she was fascinated by. He ran his own lab here for a while, gained a lot of attention, then got thrown out for research fraud.65
In short, power and privilege are embedded in and live on in the very space and infrastructure of the lab. This is a topic we explore further in chapter 4.
The design process for an additional building to house the MIT Media Lab began in 1998, with architect Fumihiko Maki; the building, named E14, eventually opened in 2010. While the exterior of the new building might look as if it is disavowing the old building, Maki designed the interior such that it would replicate the structure of the Cube in E15. More specifically, directly above a large public atrium that opens onto the campus street, seven two-story glass cubes are arranged around an upper atrium, with each cube intended to be home to a particular lab or research group. Each is vertically staggered so that moving from one lab to another involves returning to the central atrium and using the stairs or elevators. Since all of the walls facing the atrium are made of glass, the staggered verticality appears to be a creative way to make the individual workgroup spaces only half-open. Regardless of the stacking, the space of E14 is unnervingly exposed, with the balance between open and closed weighing heavily on the side of open, as one can look into and onto nearly any space one wishes.
The space of the lab’s central, upper atrium also adheres to Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein’s recommendation in the pattern “Common Areas at the Heart” to “Create a single common area for every social group. Locate it at the center of gravity of all the spaces the group occupies.”66 However, despite the design of the central meeting space, with its apparatus of couches, armchairs, and ping-pong table, it turns out that most users of the space engage solely in individualistic work, perhaps because E14 is already overridden with a kind of panoptic openness. Other attempts at communality throughout the building, such as the “food cam” or the “reuse cam,” also produce individualistic rather than community-oriented interactions, as those with extra food or electronics leave their items on a designated counter, push a button, and a camera above sends a notice to people who are in the lab that there is available food or electronics.
Hearkening back to Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, the most open and communal areas in E14 are the machine shop and wood shop on the lower levels. These spaces are open to any MIT Media Lab student at any time and have nearly any kind of equipment (from shop bots to water jet cutting machines) to allow students, especially those enrolled in the “Make Anything” class, to learn how to do just that.
While never explicitly positioning itself in contrast to the MIT Media Lab, Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF) presents a radically different model of how a hybrid lab might shape and be shaped by its space. The MAF is not only substantially smaller in terms of its total square footage, the number of denizens in and around the lab, and its operating budget; its guiding principles are also nearly diametrically opposed to those of the MIT Media Lab. Rather than being driven by a dedication to newness, invention, innovation, and profit, the MAF is dedicated to uncovering the material life of technological devices. Furthermore, quite unlike Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory or the MIT Media Lab, the MAF inherited a lab space that was already institutionally built and previously occupied rather than ordering a made-to-measure space to embody its philosophies, goals, and activities.67 However, despite its inheritance of institutional space, the MAF is the inverse of Menlo Park and the MIT Media Lab insofar as it is adept at existing within the strictures of institutionality while actually unsettling its systems of organization and control.
The MAF came into being in 2003 when the seminar for theater studies at Humboldt University in Berlin became a seminar for media studies.68 What a reader not well versed in the German higher-education system might not understand from this statement is that the German word Seminar can refer not only to a weekly meeting of graduate students led by a professor but also something akin to a program headed up by a chair. Thus 2003 is also the year Ernst was first hired as full professor of media theories and was commissioned with the foundation of the seminar and master’s program in media studies. With the hiring of Ernst and the founding of the MAF, the individual, institutional, and philosophical merged around a particular space inherited from theater studies. As Ernst puts it:
All of a sudden, spaces like the student practicing stage and its related fund of objects for rehearsal were empty. This was the ideal moment for the Berlin school of media studies (insisting on the materialities of communication and epistemic technologies) to claim such rooms under new auspices. The stage became the Media Theatre where technical devices themselves become the protagonist, and the fund became the space for a collection of requisites of a new kind: media archaeological artefacts.69
Name, space, and philosophy became entangled under the sign of the MAF, which provides the literal and figurative stage for media archaeology, and perhaps even the impetus for the importance it places on hands-on experimentation. In Digital Memory and the Archive, Ernst describes it like this: “Media archaeology is both a method and an aesthetics of practicing media criticism, a kind of epistemological reverse engineering, and an awareness of moments when media themselves, not exclusively humans anymore, become active ‘archaeologists’ of knowledge.”70 In contrast to the hands-on experimentation and making at the heart of Menlo Park and the MIT Media Lab, hands-on practice in the MAF emerges from the subversion of a theater space in order to encourage the treatment of objects of media technologies as bearers and creators of their own temporalities. Yet despite the MAF’s difference from Menlo Park and the MIT Media Lab, its media-archaeological practice also would not be possible without buttressing from a very particular kind of institutional space strongly reminiscent of the anatomical theaters and apothecaries we discuss earlier as well—one signaled by a bare, orange table in the middle of a sunken rather than raised central space whose walls are lined by shelves of media arranged not chronologically but rather by their core, underlying units of operational affinity.
Before we delve into the particularities of the MAF’s interior space, we must attend to the larger, exterior, spatial qualities of the lab, as we did for Menlo Park and the MIT Media Lab. The MAF is located in the basement of a building belonging to the Institute of Musicology at Humboldt University, about half a mile north of the main university campus. It is in a dense urban area on the south side of the Spree River, across from Berlin’s Museum Island, as if the MAF uses geography to take an oppositional stance to the hands-off mandates of institutional museums. As an indicator of the status of the neighborhood, it is also located right next to the private flat of German chancellor Angela Merkel. According to a plaque affixed to the exterior of the building, no less than Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel lived there from 1828 to the time of his death in 1831.
The building’s exterior produces a sense of itself as a monolith. The building dates back to the early nineteenth century and includes features that Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein both endorsed and warned against. Working in its favor is the fact that the building opens directly on the street and so appears to engage more directly with the public world than a more cloistered university environment would permit. While this potential for greater communication (and even learning) with the public is supported by the row of street-level windows looking down into the MAF, it is also somewhat undone by the nondescript main entrance, whose architectural importance seems equal to the building’s windows.71
Upon entering the MAF, one finds oneself on a landing that, like many anatomical theaters, provides a bird’s-eye view of the space and the collection. Since the MAF does not aspire to become a popular stopover on Berlin’s museum circuit, another effect of the raised landing is the sense that the space is more for the life of technological devices and less for human denizens. Descending a set of stairs places a visitor at eye level with the shelves of items, wrapping around the perimeter of the main room. In the center is the lab’s main workbench, for analyzing technological items “in action to reveal their media essence.”72 The MAF also extends into a smaller, rectangular adjoining room that includes yet more technological devices as well as a small collection of reference materials, placing it in the long genealogy of lab spaces that contain libraries.
If the MAF is intentionally placeful—a bounded space that also responds to its situatedness—then how does that placefulness, combined with the lab’s particular modes of thinking, play out in the activities that take place there? One of the results has to do with the teaching that occurs there, by way of an explicit acknowledgment of bias. Ernst explains:
The bias of MAF-based teaching is to train students to resist the nostalgic or even melancholic impulse which is normally associated with so-called “dead media,” and to discover the retro-futuristic element instead. The electric telegraph e.g. operates with discrete signal transmission: a code which after an age of AM media (such as radio) returned in unexpected ways. Whereas digital data transmission is much too fast to be perceivable directly to human senses, the classic telegraph “dots and dashes,” when connected to an acoustic mechanism, may serve as a way of slowing down and sonifying the nature of coded signal transmission. Retro-futurism, understood in this way, hints at a non-linear relation between past and present media technologies, a short-circuiting of media tempor(e)alities [sic] which escapes traditional, narrative history of technology. Instead of one media system resulting from another, there are sudden recursions.73
The MAF assemblage demonstrates how institutional and disciplinary shifts, the inheritance and undermining of a physical space and a specific scholarly nomenclature, and the hiring of a particular person with frank “biases” and specialized pedagogical practices all play out across this network of forces. The MAF is both an exemplification and a microcosm of these forces as it demonstrates once more how labs are insistently unique. Each is shaped not only by its physical space but also by those within and beyond their walls.
This chapter has focused on the configuration of a range of lab spaces as a way to underscore the deeply situated nature of each and to describe how that situatedness informs the philosophies of those working within them. As we emphasize throughout this book, all parts of the extended lab assemblage are deeply entangled, and space is a vital part of this dynamic. We move next to the related topic of lab apparatus: the technological objects that are part of the bundle of practices that manifest in these same spatial sites of knowledge production. Lab apparatus produces agential relations between humans and nonhumans; as such, chapter 2 returns to the MAF. Likewise, chapter 4 will return to the MIT Media Lab as a way to further explore how management techniques inform the spatial configuration of labs, along with these same agential relations. In short, labs are more about social dynamics of space than they are about stable architecture; the lab as a space is a product of relations among the people, objects, practices, institutions, and discourses that it brings together.