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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Walking the infinite

I had walked down the passage many times, narrowly missing rushing students and their bulky backpacks as I dawdled, reading the notices pinned on the soft boards along its length or the announcements sliding across the display screens at every archway. It seemed to me like just another corridor where no one lingered, apart from under the tallness of the Great Dome at one end or midway down in the sudden, imposing expanse of Lobby 7 before it narrowed again to lead you decisively toward East Campus.

So when students casually kept referring to "The Infinite" I had to ask, "But what is that?"

It is--only somewhat fancifully--referred to as MIT's spinal cord, this 825-foot corridor that runs east to west through some of MIT's main buildings, passing by the administrative offices and student affairs and several departments and labs. Apart from the fact that it is among the longest (but considerably shorter than that of Freie University, says Wikipedia) university corridor, it is known as the site of a biannual solar event, when the dipping sun aligns perfectly with the large window under the central dome and sends a ripple of light along its length--a phenomenon that the community has dubbed "MIT-Henge".

I wish I had known this earlier--I missed the last occurrence, in mid-November, by a few weeks. But learning about this made me walk the corridor with a bit more curiosity and appreciation for the design outlook (this set of buildings is credited to architect William Bosworth) that drives many structures on this campus. The Great Dome is iconic of MIT, and clearly, so is the Infinite, and both are pretty much part of the everyday rush between class and coffee shop and laboratory and library that characterizes student life on any campus.

Over the past four and a half months, the Infinite has for me been a pathway from the light-filled (okay, only on sunny days) and airy Haydn Library to a much-needed cup of Peet's brew under the lobby of main entrance, the Grand Dome. When time permits, I grab a table and watch the traffic go by, students solitary or in clumps, some finding a spot in one corner or another of this large space to hunch over assignments and readings, others in tight knots that conspire team projects. I've chanced upon an acapella group rehearsing Christmas carols and engineering students displaying posters...and of course, on that post-election Wednesday, draping their anger and anxiety on the massive pillars.

But if the Infinite is MIT's spinal cord, the other hallways that radiate from it are like neuronal pathways gathering and sending out stimuli. You have a sense that ideas are constantly cooking, that synergistic plans are being hatched, from the Vannevar Bush room to the Eastman lobby, the names that spell invention seem to be everywhere.
When you are inside the hub of innovation, inventiveness seems an ordinary, everyday affair. The environment seems to seethe with ideas and the possibility of their realization. You're encouraged to dream, and to make, and to show what you've made. You're encouraged to walk the Infinite--and soon you come to believe that it takes you places beyond that mere fraction of a mile.

Those who study architecture know how keenly spaces can shape the way we think about ourselves and our place in our immediate communities and in the world. Those who work with words know how keenly names can shape the way we think about ourselves and our relationship with the world.

There's a certain arrogance in calling an 825-foot hallway the Infinite.

Or perhaps... a certain imagination.







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