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Fusion of Form and Function

How Bosworth Built MIT.
March 1, 2005

Designing MIT: Bosworth’s New Tech
By Mark Jarzombek
Northeastern University Press, 2004

The commanding presence of MIT’s main academic buildings along the Charles River expresses the university’s preëminence and commitment to scientific excellence. That effect is due, in part, to the novel collaboration between an architect and an engineer. The cohesive blend of artistic and scientific design, however, gives no hint of the political hurdles on the road to choosing an architect, the personal and stylistic clashes that arose between architect and engineer, and the economic setbacks that plagued the process along the way.

It is this story that professor of architecture Mark Jarzombek, PhD ’86, brings to life using the rich trove of letters, photographs, proposals, and architectural plans in the MIT Museum and archives in his recent book Designing MIT: Bosworth’s New Tech. In telling this previously untold story, Jarzombek strikes a comfortable balance between architectural history and human interest.

When President Richard Maclaurin chose William Welles Bosworth to design MIT’s Cambridge campus in 1913, it was only after the consideration of at least four other prospective architects, the receipt of a staggering $2.5 million donation (equivalent to about $45 million today), and the unrelenting (and at times unsolicited) input from John Freeman, a civil engineer whom Maclaurin had commissioned to do preparatory work on the design. Maclaurin’s choice of Bosworth—who had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and came with fine recommendations from wealthy patrons John D. Rockefeller Jr. and AT&T president Theodore Newton Vail—was in fact “sort of risky,” Jarzombek told Technology Review. “Bosworth had a good reputation, but he had never designed anything this big.” At the time, Bosworth was best known for his design of the AT&T building in New York.

Although Bosworth and Freeman had vastly different ideas of what the campus should look like (Freeman favored function over form, whereas Bosworth was more concerned with bringing out the aesthetic elements of the design), it was these opposing opinions that make this story so interesting. “Often we just see architecture as a box,” Jarzombek says, “and here there was a clear desire to see architecture as something very dramatic and a powerful way to express the ideas of MIT.”

Jarzombek is disappointed that more isn’t known about the buildings we inhabit. “I always find it sort of sad that we treat buildings as just shallow boxes that are only interesting to experts,” he says, “when in reality, they are the things we live in, work in, and study in. They are around us 80 percent of the time, and we don’t know anything about them.” In Jarzombek’s book, MIT’s inhabitants can find the history and the stories—the names, faces, best intentions, and reluctant compromises—behind the buildings that surround them.

Recent Books from the MIT Community

School Choice and the Question of Accountability: The Milwaukee Experience
By Emily Van Dunk
and Anneliese M. Dickman ’94
Yale University Press, 2004, $35

Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever
By Ray Kurzweil ’70
and Terry Grossman
Rodale, 2004, $24.95

Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America
By Meg Jacobs
Assistant professor, history
Princeton University Press, 2004, $35

Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant
By Stephen Alter
Writer in residence
Harcourt Trade, 2004, $25

Eladio Dieste: Innovation in Structural Art
By Stanford Anderson
Professor and department head, architecture
Princeton Architectural Press, 2004, $60

Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers
By Pablo J. Boczkowski
Assistant professor, Sloan School
MIT Press, 2004, $30

We invite you to submit the names of recently published books and papers for this column.

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Fax 617-475-8043

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