When Steven Holl set out to design a dormitory that looked like a sponge, he wanted holes. Lots of holes. So huge gaps that double as terraces separate Simmons Hall’s three aluminum towers. Volcano-shaped lounges push through the floors. And thousands of two-foot-square windows indent the facade.
The result is an undeniably spongelike edifice, and the $78.5 million MIT dormitory, named in honor of Dorothy Simmons, the late wife and philanthropy partner of Richard P. Simmons ‘53, has garnered plenty of attention since it opened in 2002. The most expensive dorm built on campus since Baker House (see “Of Coffins, Pies, and Armadillos”), Simmons has won multiple architecture awards for its looks, functionality, and energy efficiency. Carlo Ratti, an architect who heads MIT’s SENSEable Cities Laboratory, calls it “one of the most talked-about buildings in the architectural community.”
But what’s it like to live in a work of art? The average single room in Simmons has nine windows, each providing a fractured view of the city–and its own curtain to pull shut at night. “Architects say, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful. We’ve got a curtain for every window,’” says Ratti. Talk to students, though, and they’ll counter, “I need to spend five minutes every night to close my curtains!” They’ll also point out that the windows’ screens create a “Faraday cage,” a metal box that blocks cell-phone signals. To make their first calls home, some of the 116 freshmen who moved in this fall had to pop out screens.
Dwelling in the Sponge requires–or instills–adaptability.
This year’s new students had plenty of reasons for choosing the dorm that’s also called the Space Waffle: a love of modern architecture, carpet allergies (it’s nearly carpetless), a sense of adventure. “I first heard Simmons described as ‘the giant metal thing that looks like it’s going to eat the football field,’” says freshman Katrina Ellison. “[But] by the time I got to campus, I was excited about the prospect of living there.”
Still, Ellison did a double take when she saw the geometry of her ninth-floor room: a curving wall from the adjacent lounge took up half her floor space. She and her roommate measured the walls to try to “squeeze in a chair or something,” she says. Instead, her bed got shoved wall-ward, and Ellison now performs a nightly acrobatics routine to reach it. “I have to crawl into it from the end,” she says. “For the first few days, I really hated it.”
Other freshmen strove to achieve pleasing configurations of their furniture. The pieces, all designed by Holl, include beds and drawers that stack like Lego bricks–or would, if they weren’t too heavy to lift. Movers hired by MIT helped freshmen settle in; eventually an underground trade developed in wrenches to unbolt the furniture. Senior Aron Zingman doled them out with a warning: “The beds weigh 250 pounds. You can get crushed to death by them.” Many freshmen made their first handful of friends while hoisting beds.