Ratti understands that the function of a dorm is more important to most students than its form. So when Simmons housemasters Ellen and John Essigmann asked him to design some functional improvements for the building in 2004, he got the idea to launch a student contest called “Drill a Hole in Simmons Hall.” Students’ sketches envisioned chalkboards in the hallways and paint for the mono-color walls. The winning design poked outright fun at Holl. It suggested erecting a second Simmons, a “diversional clone,” across Vassar Street for admiring architects to tour. In the spirit of the impractical, it called for a cloud-shaped zeppelin to fly over Simmons to shuttle students to class. One contest judge, Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA) director Mirko Zardini, was so impressed with the intelligence (and humor) of the entries that he showcased the design boards in a CCA exhibit on Simmons this fall.
Holes have yet to be drilled in Simmons, but Ratti says the housemasters are serious about making changes. Freshmen say they sometimes feel isolated in a dorm that is–quite literally–more than a football field away from the others. In the tower tops, some residents feel separated from other students in their own dorm. (One tower dweller says she knows her tower mates but often meets other Simmons residents on campus only when “the question of where you live comes up.”) Setting aside the contest ideas meant as a joke (“we’re not going to fly a big cloud over Simmons Hall,” says Ellen Essigmann) and those too expensive to fund from the house budget (such as enclosing the eighth-floor terrace in glass for year-round use), the housemasters are already planning to implement several contest ideas, including making wavy walls into whiteboards and providing little white balls to stick in a large mesh wall to spell out messages.
Jeff Roberts ‘02, MCP ‘03, who lived in Baker House and was a student member of Simmons’s Founders Group, says that Holl’s compartmentalized dorm isn’t as good at fostering community as the easy-to-navigate Baker, which held weekly barbecues when Roberts was there. Simmons has no equivalent to Baker’s centrally located dining hall, which serves as a hub of dorm social life. Outsiders gossip about the new dorm. “We hear it’s cold,” says a freshman from McCormick Hall.
As this year’s dorm rush chair, Agustya Mehta ‘08 faced the task of dispelling such rumors. Simmons is friendly, he insists. To prove that to prospective residents during the fall freshman residence exploration period, he held a Star Wars marathon, served late-night waffles, and sent freshmen zipping down a water slide on top of big rubber ducks. After their first week in Simmons, many freshmen who chose the dorm smiled as they called it “quirky,” “lighthearted,” and “fun.”
Anjali Tripathi ‘09 says that students have enlivened Simmons with the inventiveness celebrated at MIT–and without drilling holes. They successfully campaigned to uphold the practice of adding rubber ducks to Dan Graham’s rock, glass, and water sculpture Yin/Yang Pavilion. They also converted the photography lab into an electrical-engineering lab and wired the A-tower elevator to play Christmas carols. Ratti marvels at their creative uses of Simmons’s holes, where they park bikes or place flowers.