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Famous Architecture

Unique Buildings Echo MIT’s Innovative Style

By May K. Tse

To the unknowing eye, the buildings of MIT are an imposing bunch -- a mismatch of oddly-shaped buildings named after numbers rather than people. If this is what you think, however, look again, because there’s more here than meets the eye.

Although some people have even said that the non-homogeneous, non-ivy-covered buildings are just plain ugly, in actuality, many of MIT’s buildings are literally works of art.

“I don’t think it really matters very much whether most students know that buildings are famous, or even know the names of their architects. It just matters that the buildings are good, and contribute positively to the quality of student life,” said Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning William J. Mitchell.

Mitchell cited the dormitory Baker House as an example. “It was designed by Alvar Aalto -- probably the greatest architect of the 20th century. It’s one of only two buildings he did in the United States, and -- though quite modest in its scale and construction -- it’s an undoubted masterpiece. Every architect and architecture student who visits Boston makes a pilgrimage to see it, and there’s much for design professionals to learn from it. But I think Aalto would have been happiest to know, simply, that it has turned out to be a great place to live,” he said.

Baker House, designed so that 80 percent of the rooms have a view of the river, is currently undergoing renovations. There will be a special 50th anniversary celebration scheduled for October 1999, entitled “Interpreting Aalto.”

Eero Saarinen also leaves a mark

Nearby Baker House stand two more architectural feats, both credited to Eero Saarinen in 1955. The first one is Kresge Auditorium. The building’s outer shell is exactly one eighth of a sphere, a fact which has even been discussed in freshmen calculus classes! Via strategically-placed buttresses, this outer shell actually “floats”separately from the rest of the building, which includes both the actual auditorium as well as the smaller “Little Theater” below.

The other famous building by Saarinen is the chapel, located directly across from the auditorium on the other side of the grassy open area known as Kresge Oval. The windowless, non-denominational chapel is designed with a moat surrounding it so that at certain times of the day, when sunlight strikes the water, the light can be reflected into the chapel.

Others bring fame to campus

World-renowned architect, I.M. Pei ’40 also has the unique perspective of coming back to create a design for his alma mater. He is credited with the Wiesner Building which houses the Media Lab and Albert and Vera List Visual Arts Center, as well as the Ralph Landau Building (66), the Camille Edouard Dreyfus Building (18), and the Cecil and Ida Green Building (54, the tallest building in Cambridge).

MIT is also populated with sculptures, murals, and other pieces of art by distinguished artists, such as Eduardo Catalano, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, and Louise Nevelson. In addition, Frank Gehry has been commissioned to design the new Stata Complex, which will be built in the lot where Building 20 used to stand, and which will house the Laboratory for Computer Science, among other groups.

“The new Stata Complex will be truly extraordinary. The Boston area has never seen anything like it, and I’m sure it will quickly become a symbol of MIT in the 21st century and a popular tourist destination,” Mitchell said.

“It’s an inspiration for Course 4 students to see these extraordinary projects developing on campus. It shows them that MIT is very serious about good architecture, and it creates many opportunities for productive interaction with the architects involved. Last fall, for example, Frank Gehry and I jointly taught a design studio. And this spring, when we brought our architects together for an intensive three-day campus design project, a dozen of our students were very actively involved,” Mitchell said.

MIT leads way in building styles

Commenting on the fact that MIT’s different buildings don’t lend to a very uniformed look, Mitchell said, “We certainly don’t want a homogeneous campus. The great campuses of the past, like Cambridge and Oxford, aren’t like that at all. They are really the outcomes of a kind of architectural conversation, extending over many centuries, in which designers of new projects respond creatively to the work of their predecessors. The result is diverse, complex, interesting, and full of delightful surprises. And it has a unity of a far more subtle kind that that which results from one architect doing everything, at one particular point in time. By bringing in the most creative architects of their generations, to add their contributions to the evolving whole, MIT is pursuing a similar strategy.”

“Architecture is really about ideas. It’s therefore appropriate for an institution like MIT to take a leadership role in promoting innovative design on its campus, just as it takes a leadership role in research,” Mitchell said.