Architecture student David Foxe is so excited by all the construction on campus that he hung a sign on his door that says, “Please knock. I give tours.” So far this year, Foxe has led 74 groups around the Institute.
“MIT has become a kind of lab for studying different styles of architecture,” he says. “It’s one thing to study architecture in a book, but it’s something very different to see it and live it on a daily basis. It’s a wonderful privilege to see all this in person.”
MIT is involved in one of the most ambitious building programs in its history. More than a dozen building projects and renovations are now in the works. The $1 billion building program will revitalize many existing facilities and will add nearly one million square feet to the 154-acre campus — the biggest undertaking of its kind in more than four decades.
It partly was inspired by the Task Force on Student Life and Learning, whose 1998 report called for educating students for life not only through academics and research but also through community. Since learning occurs both in and out of the classroom, the report noted, an MIT education should offer more opportunities for faculty and students to connect outside formal learning situations. What was needed, it said, were spaces for people to talk, community areas that would bring students and faculty together to brainstorm and to create interdisciplinary projects.
“Technology has made it possible to avoid people,” says John Guttag, head of MIT’s electrical engineering and computer science department. “Before, you went to the library to get a book, and while you were there you’d meet other people. Now you can do all your research at a computer sitting at your desk. You can communicate with email and instant messenger. It’s become much easier not to have personal contact.”
“We can’t count on solitary, isolated individuals to make the major contributions we’re capable of,” says Chancellor Phillip Clay. “While some individual work will continue, we have to have more collaboration. If biologists and chemists work on something together, we believe they will achieve something better than either could achieve alone.”
The new Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences will bring together for the first time at MIT the areas of electrical engineering, computer science, artificial intelligence, linguistics and philosophy.
“The physical distance of everybody has led to an intellectual distance,” Guttag says. “But the new facility will encourage multi-disciplinary activities in research and education and will more broadly educate students because they’ll be rubbing shoulders with people who share a different perspective.”
The 2.8-acre twisting complex of brick, metal, and glass was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry, who also designed the famous Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. Gehry’s visionary complex is kinetic, but behind its soaring glass facades it will be practical, a place with concrete floors, sheetrock, and plywood, space you don’t have to worry about messing up where there is freedom to create. Like building 20, the structure it replaces, the Stata Center was designed to be innovative.
“Building 20 (built as a temporary research center during World War II) never had spaces that inspired anybody to do anything and look what came out of there,” Provost Robert Brown says of the building where atomic clocks, Doc Edgerton’s underwater cameras, and Noam Chomsky’s revolutionary theories on the nature of language were developed. “What was fabulous about building 20 is that it was not sacred. If you were working on a project and needed to poke a hole in a wall, you just did. No one was going to get mad because there were holes all over the walls.”
In addition to being innovative, the Stata Center has been designed to bring people together. There’ll be multi-story lounges, where two floors come together with a common lounge for socializing. Some lounges will have glass walls, so you can wave to people inside and watch them work. And some of the offices will be arranged in irregular shapes and rectangles called “neighborhoods,” so when students and faculty leave their offices they can see who’s in. A key feature of the complex will be an interior student boulevard, a grand open space for mingling that will have everything from a cafeteria to areas where you can sit and open a laptop.
The Center also will include research facilities, fitness facilities, a childcare center, underground parking, a big auditorium, and classrooms designed for experimental teaching and distance learning.
Not The Panama Canal
Ask anyone anywhere to name one of the great building projects of all time, and you might hear the Panama Canal, or the Transcontinental Railroad. But ask someone at MIT that question, and you often hear, “Have you seen Simmons Hall?” The 350-student dormitory, designed by Steven Holl, is 10 stories of aluminum and glass, a long narrow structure dotted with horizontal and vertical holes. Holl says the cut-out design was inspired by a sponge he was bathing with one morning. He created cut-outs throughout the building to create lounges, outdoor terraces, and night cafes –– all designed to bring students together.
The dorm also has residences for a faculty housemaster, graduate assistants, and visiting scholars, all meant to integrate the lives of students with the wider world around them.
Over half of the dorm’s square footage is congregation space. It has kitchens, lounges, a computer room, fitness center, music practice rooms, a game room, a photography lab, and a dining area. It also has 5500 windows. Each student’s room has nine –– and they all open.
“Simmons is a metaphor for light,” says Facilities Director Victoria Sirianni. “It’s ethereal. The whole design of the building says open to life, open to experimentation, open to inspiration.” In fact, open is the word most often used to describe this facility –– not only open to light and air but also open to students, faculty, and to everyone who lives, works, eats, studies, and has fun in this dynamic space.
“What I love most about living in Simmons Hall is the people and the community that’s starting to form,” says junior Nikki Johnson. . “During study breaks at night, we’ll take over one of the kitchens and make pancakes and French toast at 10 o’clock. We play music, and people just come streaming out of their rooms.
“On Sundays, we have brunch. People just come down in their pajamas and hang out, and we’ll pop in a movie or work on a jigsaw puzzle together and just talk and get to know each other. I’ve lived in other dorms and occasionally people would get together, but it was nothing like this. This really feels like home.”
Two newly-built graduate dorms also recently opened on campus –– 224 Albany Street and 70 Pacific Street –– now making it possible for 40 percent of MIT’s grad students to live on campus. “Cambridge housing costs are among the highest in the nation,” says Larry Benedict, dean for student life. “Grad students no longer need to live far from MIT to find affordable housing. And by housing more grad students than ever, more space is now available for residents in the Cambridge housing market.”
Living on campus, grad students say, is a great way to socialize. “I’ve made lots of new friends,” says Jeff Roberts, whose new dorm has a game room, fitness center, and a kitchen on every floor. “Without those community spaces, I’m not sure I would have.”
Roberts, who admits to having been called a nerd, adds, “If you define it purely from a social standpoint, a nerd is someone who is reclusive. By and large, I’d say I no longer fit the stereotype.”
Up the street from Simmons Hall is the newly-opened Albert and Barrie Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, a 125, 000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility designed by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo & Associates, which features an Olympic-class pool.
Kirstin Alberi, a captain of MIT’s swim team, says: “Because the pool is so much bigger than the old one, the swimming and diving teams can now practice together, strengthening the bonds between teammates. In the past, divers had to practice at Harvard; we never saw them or got to know them. Now we’re all together, which makes us feel like we’re all on the same side.”
Not only is the new facility bringing students together, she says, “but this place is an inspiration. It’s so motivating because when you’re in a world-class facility, you want to perform like a world-class athlete.
“I come in here and I’m just in awe. I wander around the deck every day and just look around. And every day it’s like seeing it for the first time. I go to practice early and I stay late, just so I can be here. I can’t believe that I actually get to swim here.”
Grad student Marita Barth, a member of the women’s club ice hockey team, works out at the Center’s 11, 000 square-foot fitness center. “Now there’s enough room for many team members to be on the exercise machines together,” she says. “We all get in a line next to each other and cheer each other on. There was no way you could that in the old gym.
“The old gym,” she says, “was like a cave –– no windows, no light, no air. Now, it’s a big open space with windows, mirrors, and TV sets. You no longer feel like you’re being punished to work out.” The surroundings, she adds, also seem to have inspired the staff. “They used to just glance at you and say, ‘Lemmee see your ID.’ Now they smile and say, ‘Have a good morning and enjoy yourself.’ The first time I went in, I was amazed. I thought, are these people talking to me?”
Still-to-be-built on the northern end of campus is the Brain and Cognitive Sciences project. Bombay architect Charles Correa, along with the local firm of Goody, Clancy & Associates, is designing the 376,000-square-foot building, which will span a railroad track. It will bring together the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Picower Center for Learning and Memory –– both headed by winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine –– and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
“Neuroscience is one of the most profound and significant scientific ventures of the new century,” says Dean of Science Robert Silbey. “We believe that the time has come to take our strengths in biology, cognitive science, neuroscience, and computation and bring them together to make the most headway on these challenging problems.”
One day, Silbey says, we will understand the fundamental scientific bases for depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease, and one day we might even develop practical ways to prevent them.
“The project simply represents one of the largest single areas of research growth in the world,” says Executive Vice President John Curry. “And each dollar of research is arguably these days requiring more square feet than before. Researchers are working in teams, and research increasingly involves large machines –– everything from MRI machines to gene splicers to high-speed computers. You just need more space.”
Across campus and yet-to-be-built is the East Campus Project, which will bring together the Sloan School of Management and MIT’s Economics Department. Now under design by Santa Monica-based Moore, Ruble and Yudell and local firm Sasaki Associates, the 330,000-square-foot complex will create a heart for the Sloan School, bringing together people now housed in nine separate buildings.
“We do a lot of work in teams, and we’ve got people from 40 countries,” says Management Dean Richard Schmalensee, adding that in the past 10 years enrollment in Sloan subjects has doubled. “You just can’t run a program that involves interaction and the development of leadership skills when teams have to meet in the hall and clubs have to meet in the courtyard. Space is crucial to learning.”
This landmark complex will ultimately extend from Memorial Drive to Main Street and will be circled by a part that overlooks the Charles River. It will include the William A. Porter Management Center, which will house faculty and academic suites, classrooms, meeting rooms, and dining facilities. The complex will also house a Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) classroom, which will provide high-speed web access and enable students and faculty to live-conference together.
Also still-to-come on campus is the Media Lab Extension by Pritzker-winner Fumihiko Maki, who has designed multi-story labs visible behind translucent glass windows. The complex will connect to the original Media Lab through a many-tiered central atrium and will house research labs and classrooms dedicated to the future of information and learning technologies.
The 197,000 square-foot complex, says Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and co-founder of the Media Lab, will be one of the most significant projects on campus. “Its significance comes from its world-class design. While Frank Gehry’s Stata Center will be explosive on the outside, the new Media Lab will be explosive on the inside,” he says, adding that Maki’s design is a large, simple elegant box which inside explodes into 12 interlocking open spaces. Interlocking spaces is a great design for the study of digital technology, he says, a field best served by people working together across disciplines.
Also planned for the future is an overall campus design by Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin, who intends to transform Vassar and Amherst Streets into tree-lined boulevards to attract pedestrians. Vassar Street, which now looks industrial, will have bikeways, big sidewalks, flowering trees, and bright streetlights. The plan also calls for a series of parks between buildings, clearing out old buildings to create courtyards, and coordinating signs, paving, and streetlights –– all with the intent to unify the campus.
The first School of Architecture in the United States was established at MIT in 1868. And perhaps because of it, says Architecture Dean William Mitchell, “there is an obligation of the university to create great architecture.
“MIT has played an enormous role in architectural leadership in this country,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine having a first-rate architecture school on campus if you’re not practicing what you preach.” Not only is it important to create bold new buildings, Mitchell says, but “MIT also has an obligation to preserve and rehabilitate some of the older buildings on campus, including some of its original ones designed by William Welles Bosworth. The process of architectural restoration,” he says, “is like bringing back a garden.”
Prof. John Guttag says he believes the extraordinary architecture on campus will be an inspiration. “If you walk into a beautiful building, you’re inclined to be in a much better mood than if you walk into a place that feels like a dungeon. You can do great work in a dungeon, but I really do believe that art has a role in life, that it inspires people to be creative and to feel good.”
George Albert is already feeling good. A construction worker for 33 years, Albert is among those now building the Stata Center. “I’ve never seen a project as innovative as this in my life,” he says. “Not even close. The more we build, the more excited I get.
“I never bother to visit a building once it’s finished, but I’m definitely coming back here. I’m even going to bring my grandchildren. This building is going to be a landmark for sure.”