Fumihiko Maki is a disarmingly subtle architect. His buildings have the genial knack of always looking good in photographs; his lectures are cogent rationalizations without seeming radical or revolutionary. Yet reality, the haptic experience of his often diaphanous buildings, raises the game – again and again, one is presented with, and surrounded by, a remarkable spatial construct. At its best, Maki’s architecture appears to freeze its multiple components at just the right moment, exactly when they achieve some ideal inter-relationship. I am tempted to liken the architect’s skill to an imaginary art form: Zen juggling. It is of course crass of foreigners to make sweeping generalizations of classic Japanese culture. And it may be foolhardy to compare ancient sensibilities with the strategies and objectives of Japanese design today. Maki, however, whilst undeniably Japanese, is also a global figure who spent many formative years in the United States. In fact Maki’s first solo project was Steinberg Hall at Washington University in St Louis (1960), a campus he returned to for his adjacent Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts completed in 2006. Of several projects envisaged for the U.S. and Canada, his most distinguished to-date may well be the Media Arts and Sciences Building recently inaugurated at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Media Arts and Sciences Building is an established Maki type: the multipart cubic lantern. Maki’s Spiral Building in Tokyo’s Minato district, his nearby and exquisite Tepia Science Pavilion, and his National Museum of Modern Art close to Kyoto’s historic Heian Shrine are each an assembly of solids and voids, sleek surfaces and artifacts of structure caught amid pools of light. The latest addition to MIT is another orthogonal composition in which glazing details, the refinement of grids, and the superimposition of layers all contribute to an alluring whole. Exposed and glowing on three of its four sides, the Media Arts and Sciences Building offers direct, oblique and veiled views of its inner organization. Much of the envelope is transparent. At street level, the principal façade is a taut glass membrane that extends vertically at midpoint to permit views from the external world into a tall atrium marked by one red diagonal – the balustrade and underbelly of an artfully suspended staircase. To either side of this south-facing void, vast screens of aluminum pipes hang forward of the glass to allow only glimpses of the activities within (essentially MIT’s famous researchers at work). The central façade zone rises shear past the atrium to be capped by a sloping canopy that tilts up from an opaque oval pod to curve and herald a penthouse terrace to the southwest (MIT’s researchers at play). Although the striated rectangles hanging forward of the main facades are elegantly evocative (what are those Media Lab folks up to in there?), the more transparent and recessive elements are an invitation to take a good look inside. If Maki’s elevations at MIT are assemblages of rectilinear elements, the plans – except for the attic, where irregular penthouses interrupt the general pattern – are strictly orthogonal, tartan grids of smaller rooms and walkways. These vectors define six cubic zones, three next to Amherst Street to the south and three immediately parallel, to the north and more embedded within the building mass. The big volumetric move extrudes communal space up from the middle square onto Amherst Street to transfer laterally into an unexpected hall that rises from Level 3 in the heart of the building. There two further staircases crisscross in space. One is yellow, the other blue. The Media Arts and Sciences Building is in fact an extension – its fourth side attaches itself to, and discreetly punctures, the somewhat infamous Wiesner Building designed by I.M. Pei in the early 1980s. In his book, How Buildings Learn (1994), Stewart Brand contrasts Wiesner with “its vast sterile atrium” and corridors that “are narrow and barren” with Building 20, a three-story wood structure “designed in an afternoon” in 1943. Building 20 “was too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter, Spartan in its amenities, often dirty, and implacably ugly”; yet it proved popular with users, who appreciated its informality and flexibility, and was the site of many key technological inventions (it was demolished in 1998 to make way for Frank Gehry’s Ray and Maria Stata Center). Maki’s building is thus not merely an extension; its layout must necessarily correct the stiffness of Pei’s earlier structure. Maki liberates the MIT inmates by providing not only one major atrium but half-a-dozen satellite halls, each more intimate and more interconnected (physically and visually) than the problematic Wiesner original. In section too Maki’s steel-framed building is more complex, more inducive to exploration. The flush white voids unfold and zigzag through the structure, cascading about the central atrium from a café on Level 5 and, ultimately, a Winter Garden one story above that is suffused with natural light. This penthouse level is a prime destination with a lecture hall in the oval pod, an event space (with exposed diagonal ceiling) facing east, and a trapezoidal conference room looking south, across an attractive terrace, to distant view of the Boston skyline. The Media Arts and Sciences Building thus works to entice vertical and, with its many partitions of floor-to-ceiling glass, horizontal movement. Delicate spiral staircases link the floors and galleries of the double-height suites to either side of the main atrium sequence – these laboratories investigate such beguiling topics as Camera Culture, Lifelong Kindergarten, and Tangible Media. Providing multiple sightlines and options for interaction, Maki and his colleagues have engendered an agglomerative structure that is programmatically porous, that works seamlessly to energize and inform its users. We might usefully consider this latest addition to the MIT campus as the refined progeny of Maki’s interest, back in the heady days of Metabolism, in Collective or Group Form, a synthesis therefore of tectonic elegance and an active manipulation of social space.