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On Ugliness And Architecture

Stephen Form

Course IV (Architecture) remains one of the most obscure majors at MIT and this fact fills me with a certain measure of pride. However, the rarity of the major also ensures that few people know much about it; for example, I get made fun of for the supposed ease of my major, a tremendous misconception. Recently, a lack of knowledge about Course IV has manifested itself again, as I have found my course has unfairly come under attack on campus due to some new buildings MIT is erecting on its campus.

Being on the receiving end of this blame is expected. The comic “Filler Space” called for the hanging of all Course IV and XI majors in response to Simmons Hall’s construction [The Tech, Oct. 18, 2002]. I take this commentary with a grain of salt, but I still do not call for all Course VI majors to be executed whenever my computer crashes.

I read the recent Boston Globe article on the Stata Center [“Monumental Effort,” March 7] and the ensuing letter in The Tech by MIT alumnus Stuart Brorson [“The In-Your-Face Ugliness of Stata,” March 12]. I agree with many of the opinions he has expressed. Indeed, my father and mother (also alumni) have echoed Brorson’s sentiments almost word-for-word on occasion. However, I take some offense to the fact that “MIT’s own architecture academicians” are being cited as a clueless bunch who are praising the Stata Center like it was a set of the emperor’s new clothes.

It is my opinion that the choice of Frank Gehry as the architect for the Stata Center was partially a concern for MIT’s trendiness. Just as a fashion plate would want the newest collection by the particular season’s hottest designer, MIT wanted a Gehry, and that is what they got.

His buildings often have price tags that are much greater than expected, require software originally designed for making fighter jets, provide construction challenges that require entirely new solutions by engineers, have a completion date delay that is often measured in years, and present other unforeseen circumstances (an interior maze that allowed a criminal to elude capture by police for several hours in one building, for example).

Gehry has done some very beautiful buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the new Walt Disney Concert Hall. He also has built what some call the ugliest building ever made: the Experience Music Project in Seattle. The Stata Center was a gamble, and MIT got one of his less inspiring buildings, in my opinion: a pile of blocks, two towers, and some curved rubble sitting between them. (I will reserve my full judgement until I can see the interior spaces, however. This follows the same logic as not judging a book by its cover.)

Simmons is another story, and I will only mention that, as a part-time architectural tour guide of the dorm, I see many architects enter the building prepared for a wonderful experience only to be let down by the bleak hallways and peripheral space not fit for occupation even by dead cats.

My point is this: do not heap your unhappy feelings about MIT’s buildings on me and my fellow architecture students. This also goes for the architecture faculty and the discipline in general. Some of us may like these buildings. Some of us may despise them more than you do.

Remember that architecture, like any discipline, is filled with enormous failures as well as wonderful successes. Our campus is the site of Eero Saarinen’s chapel, which is one of the most transcendent buildings I have ever entered. It is the site of Alvar Aalto’s Baker House, an incredibly sensitive and humane residence for students that has been the most requested dormitory on campus for nearly every year of its existence.

MIT does not really have a beautiful campus like many “Old World” universities like Stanford or even Harvard. However, even though we have some, our campus is not filled with characterless Modernist buildings constructed simply because they were the cheapest option available.

Indeed, MIT could do some “soul-searching” when it comes to deciding on architects and their proposals to build our campus. There is still room for good stuff here and our school should not give up on trying to do better than it has. We should commit ourselves to building better, not resign ourselves to building bland.

Stephen Form is a member of the class of 2005.