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Students sit atop a plinth in the corner of Lobby 7 as pedestrians walk past on Nov. 5, 2009. The Class of 1954 is sponsoring a student contest for designs to sit atop the pedestals, which were left unfinished after Lobby 7 was designed in 1939.
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The empty plinths in Lobby 7 are familiar to anyone who passes through the entrance to MIT’s campus on a regular basis. Originally designed to hold statues depicting the ancient Greek intellectuals Aristotle, Ictinus, Archimedes, and Callicrates, they are commonly adorned today with a rather unique piece of artwork: MIT students. The Lobby 7 Design Competition, which kicked off last May, aims to fill the empty spaces with more appropriate adornment. After reviewing the 60 student-submitted entries in December, the competition announced its twelve finalists two weeks ago. The competition has separate divisions for undergraduate and graduate student entries, and the finalists were evenly split between these divisions.

According to the competition’s website, the evaluating blind jury consists of four MIT faculty members, three local professional architects who are familiar with MIT’s campus, and a class of 1954 engineering alumnus. According to Mark M. Jarzombek PhD ’86, associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning and director of the competition, there was a vast array of both individual and group entries. Some designs consisted of traditional statues, while others were interactive or included electrical machinery, and a few even had humorous appeal. All of the entries said something unique about MIT.

The twelve finalist teams and individuals have been given $400 to further develop their designs for the final round submissions. In early March, the teams will present a project design, model, video, or any combination of those three media to the panel of judges, which will choose three undergraduate and three graduate winners. First, second, and third prizes at each level will be awarded $10,000, $2,500, and $1,000, respectively.

According to Jennifer Y. Chuong G, a finalist, the competition is very generous and encourages students to feel free to push their limits. Although she acknowledges the limitations of constructing the winning design — it is possible that none of the student designs will ultimately be built — Chuong said that “Lobby 7 is a great space and it would be great to see something there, even temporarily, that is student-initiated.”

The concept of the Lobby 7 Design Competition surfaced two years ago, according to Jarzombek, who said that two alumni, Harvey I. Steinberg ’54 and Joseph P. Blake ’54, approached him with the idea for the competition after reading his book Designing MIT: Bosworth’s New Tech, which discusses the history of the plinths. With MIT’s 150th anniversary coming up in April, the alumni felt that now was the perfect opportunity for students to represent the Institute in a manner outside of their specialized interests. “The purpose was to see what kinds of ideas today’s students would have regarding what could or should be placed on the plinths,” said Blake.

Open to all MIT students and sponsored by the Class of 1954, the design competition is less an exercise in functional design than one in conceptual design; there is no guarantee that one of the winning designs will be built, as that final decision is made by the President’s office. The intent of the competition is not to produce a functional space-filler, but rather to elicit thought and innovation from students. Jarzombek said that not all of the finalist’s entries could be functionally implemented, but they were selected since they represent the essence of MIT. The only “rule” of the competition is to submit a design in the spirit of MIT’s official creed: mens et manus.

The winning entries will be displayed at the Elliot K. Wolk Gallery in Building 7 from April 15 to May 15 in an exhibition hosted by the MIT Museum. The final winners, in both the graduate and undergraduate groups, will be formally announced on April 15 at a ceremony that will be part of the MIT 150 celebration.