Graduation 2012: The Incubator

June 15, 2012

Jon Patmore, Upper Group language arts teacher, delivered another inspiring speech at the 2012 sixth-grade graduation ceremony.

Building 20 Yesterday–unattributed
The writer Alec Waugh once said, “You can fall in love at first sight with a place as with a person.” That may be true. Think about some of your favorite places. What struck you when you first saw them, and how long did it take for you to feel at home in them?

Now, take a moment, if you would, to consider the first time you remember coming to Walden. What did you notice about the campus? Let’s try this: In a moment, I’ll give everybody one minute. If you would, please, turn to someone sitting close to you and share something that caught your eye when you first came here. When the minute is up, I’ll put my hand up, and we’ll go on.

If we were to make a list of all the things you noticed, it might include the trees, the play structures, the swings, the monkey bars, the field, the kid-sized buildings, the big windows, the sandbox, the four-square, the lofts, the gargoyles, the Lower Group house, the Studio, the Art Room, and any number of other places or objects we have fallen in love with. Of course, maybe you noticed the leaning chain-link fence, the cramped office, or the fact that half of the classrooms aren’t wheelchair accessible. I’m not saying love is blind.

This year, as we look at rebuilding the campus, I’ve been thinking a lot about the space here at the corner of Dwight and McKinley, what I love about it, and how we live in it. In honoring this year’s graduating students, I want to take a couple of minutes to talk about the idea that a place such as Walden can shape the people in it, just as the people can shape it. To illustrate this idea, I want to talk about two other buildings that have been home to a lot of inspiration.

In a New Yorker article on creativity and groups (“Groupthink” January 30, 2012), science writer Jonah Lehrer talks about a building on the M.I.T. campus called Building 20. This was a place, which by the late 1990’s, had become “a legend of innovation, widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world.” The work scientists did there led to the first video game, Bose speakers, Chomskyan linguistics, and advances in areas including high-speed photography and the physics of microwaves. M.I.T. people called it “the magical incubator.”

However, one of Building 20’s early nicknames was the Plywood Palace. It was a huge structure built during World War II to house a radar research facility. Designed in an afternoon, the three-story building was made up of a wooden frame covered in asbestos shingles, sitting on a very large concrete slab. It contained 250,000 square feet of indoor space. As buildings go, it was kind of a disaster. Ventilation and lighting were bad. The walls were thin. The roof leaked. It was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. It was hard to find your way around in. It violated Cambridge fire codes. In fact, the only reason it was allowed to stand was because the university promised to demolish it after the war. However, over the course of just a few years, it became a hub of groundbreaking research on all sorts of radar. Then, when the war was over, M.I.T. dismantled the lab and started getting ready to tear down the building. But, there was a big influx of students, and they decided to keep using it a little while longer. They started putting in offices, labs, clubs, and classrooms that didn’t have anywhere else to go. Lehrer says that, over the years, the building “became a strange, chaotic domain, full of groups who had been thrown together by chance and who knew little about one another’s work.”

M.I.T. finally demolished Building 20 in 1998. What had made this structure, which hung around 50 years beyond its original demolition date, into a “magical incubator?” Lehrer points to two big things in particular. First, researchers, teachers, and students had freedom to use the space in ways they saw fit, including tearing down walls to make more room for collaboration. Second, people with different points of view, often from different disciplines, influenced each other. This had to do with the way various subjects and pursuits were situated in close quarters. It also had to do with the fact that the space presented lots of opportunities for chance encounters. Talking about the home of his office for many years, Noam Chomsky said, “Building 20 was a fantastic environment. It looked like it was going to fall apart. But it was extremely interactive… There was a mixture of people who later became separate departments interacting informally all the time. You would walk down the corridor and meet people and have a discussion.” What came out of this, too, was community. Morris Halle, who founded the M.I.T. Linguistics Department, hired Noam Chomsky, and worked in the office next to his for decades says, “We became great friends.” Of course, disagreement is part of that. He goes on to say, “And friends shouldn’t be shy about telling each other when they are wrong. What am I supposed to do? Not tell him he’s got a bad idea?”

Lehrer talks about how innovative companies such as Pixar have tried to tap into the same power as Building 20—a power that comes from working with a diverse group of people, especially when that group has opportunities for plenty of chance interactions. When none other than Steve Jobs was planning Pixar’s headquarters in 1999, he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that the staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often. Not only that, but he put the mailboxes in the lobby, moved the meeting room to the center of the structure, and decided that there should be only one set of bathrooms in the whole building. Apparently, he was forced to compromise on this last point and wound up adding one more pair of bathrooms, but the goal was to have everybody run into each other, the idea being that the best meetings happened by accident.

In comparison to Building 20, or even Pixar Studios, Walden is tiny. It has a cozy, if rough, jewel-like quality that neither of those spaces could ever have. Walden was designed with much more thought and care than Building 20 and was made much more humbly than Pixar. Walden is also set apart by the fact that its roots are in the pacifist-anarchist tradition. Still, consider some of the similarities. We rely on collaboration among a diverse group of people. It’s how we run the school, and it’s something we ask the kids to do on a daily basis. Everybody is neighbors with everybody else in our little village, and, every time I leave my room, I run into someone, whether I set out to or not. Plus, the office is about as far away from the main entrance as possible, meaning that getting there requires a trek under the basketball hoop, around the foursquare, past the Middle Group, down to the quad-level structure, and past the Lower -Middle Group. And, once you’re inside, there’s only one bathroom for the grownups, just like Steve Jobs would have wanted. The result is a real and lasting sense of community.

In our own “magical incubator,” the students are thriving. During the last few weeks alone, in culminating events for Science, Music, Writing, Art, and Drama, we have seen their tremendous creativity, hard work, and love for each other. All year long, though, and in years past, I have watched them as a community collaborate and create in remarkable ways. It’s not just about making things or doing things, either. It’s about how they interact with the world. I’m incredibly proud of them and, really, a little bit in awe.

For the graduates and for others moving on to new schools, things are going to change, just as change is coming to the Walden campus. Your job is the same as ours. We all need to hold on to the lessons we have learned in this space. Get out and talk to people. Mix it up. Share ideas. Listen to each other. Disagree when you need to. Work together. Take the long way if you have to, even if there’s more than one bathroom.

In closing, I’d like to say that, with Jo’s health, Sophia’s arrival, the new building project, Andrea’s arrival, Sophia’s new baby’s arrival, and my son’s first year at Walden, it’s been a challenging, momentous, exhausting, amazing year with a great group of kids. I want thank the parents, families, teachers, staff, and children for making this a place I could fall in love with.

Building 20 Today–photo by Wally Gobetz

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