For decades, MIT gamely tolerated its nickname, “the factory on the Charles.” With its imposing neoclassical façade and its famed Infinite Corridor, the Institute was a labyrinth of isolated laboratories. And the limited on-campus housing meant that many students emerged from classrooms only to scatter. But by the early 1990s, the moniker had begun to rankle, as the former dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, William Mitchell, notes in his new book, Imagining MIT: Designing a Campus for the Twenty-First Century. He writes, “There was a widespread, uneasy feeling at MIT that the formidable research and teaching machine that the campus had developed into was–much like the Tin Man–missing a heart.”
Over the next decade, the Institute reinvented its landscape to promote a vibrant culture that encourages social and interdisciplinary interaction. MIT wound up with five landmark works of architecture: the Al and Barrie Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center, the Simmons Hall dormitory, the Ray and Maria Stata Center, the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex, and the new Media Lab expansion.
Mitchell, at the time the architectural advisor to the Institute’s president, was a witness to the many internal conflicts that shaped each project. In Imagining MIT, he walks the reader not only through each building’s unique architecture but also through a “maze of might-have-beens,” exposing the political, social, and financial forces that hindered plans and then wrought each building into its final form. “Part of the challenge of architecture is, out of all this complexity and sometimes very irrational decision-making, you try to make something original,” he says.
The book is rich with photos, and with reproductions of early models and sketches, from sponge-inspired Simmons drawings to Stata Center models made of crumpled paper. The unconventional designs of the new buildings were attempts to rethink MIT’s space. Scientists used to low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit labs would find themselves contemplating high-vaulted, naturally lit spaces and unexpected pockets and corners designed to foster chance encounters and collaborations. Frank Gehry is quoted as explaining his design challenge at the Stata Center: “The main problem that I was given was that there are seven separate departments that never talk to each other. And when they talk to each other … they synergize and make things and it’s gangbusters. … So they asked me to make places where people could bump into each other.”
The result had its detractors–and its problems. The Stata Center “sprang a few leaks in the first major rainstorm,” says Mitchell. “But these were easily found and fixed, since critics of the building gleefully pointed them out.”
As each project came to life, it added texture to a previously flat landscape. MIT had new energy and a new heart–and had set the bar for a new generation of campus architecture.