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Of Coffins, Pies, and Armadillos

Baker House was never your average dorm

At the formal opening of Senior House on June 11, 1949, the building soon to be renamed Baker House (in honor of dean of students Everett Moore Baker) was touted as more than a residence: it was a “new concept in community living.” In addition to accommodating 353 students, the dormitory offered a plethora of gathering spots: a large dining room with “moon garden” skylights, lounges on each floor, a game room with a fireplace, and a music-listening area.

Shown here is an early depiction of the Baker House dormitory, formally opened as Senior House in 1949.

By today’s standards, that may not sound like anything special, but MIT was then largely a commuter school. As World War II veterans returned, enrollment skyrocketed; by 1949 more than 400 students lived in temporary barracks. Baker House, commissioned in 1946 from renowned Finnish architect and visiting professor Alvar Aalto, was meant to ease the housing crunch.

Aalto departed from the “International Style” of architecture then in vogue–rectilinear structures of steel, reinforced concrete, and glass. Instead, he created a wave-shaped building that used natural materials like brick, wood, and terra-cotta tiles. Thanks to the building’s sinuous form, there are 22 different room shapes on a typical, 43-room floor. Students dubbed the smallest rooms “coffins,” and wedge-shaped rooms along the building’s curves became known as “pies.” The interior wood furnishings designed by Aalto and his wife Aino have nicknames too: elephants, armadillos, and giraffes are Baker lingo for armoires, cabinets, and bookshelves.

Over the years, Baker has seen its share of hijinks. As early as 1951, students discovered that the brick walls made handy chalkboards for solving math problems. In 1968, students lugged snow to the second-floor bathroom, convincing the media they’d made it by turning on the showers and opening the windows. The Boston Herald Traveler was among the gullible and ran the story on its front page. During the 1973-‘74 academic year, residents burned an effigy of a nerd stuffed with computer paper. And according to that year’s Technique, “All the fresh air in Cambridge was needed in this year’s coffin stuff. One hundred fourteen residents gathered in a room measuring 7 by 12 feet. Pass the Ban!!” More recently, the piano-drop tradition was resurrected after a seven-year hiatus. Students tossed a piano off Baker’s roof in April 2005 to mark drop date (the last day to drop a class). Last April the piano was dropped on a target–a model of the Caltech cannon–that promptly smashed into bits.

Architect and writer David Foxe ‘03, MArch ‘06, moved into Baker as a freshman in 1999–just after the first phase of an extensive, nearly $29 million renovation–and spent four years there. For three of those years he gave architectural tours to students, alumni, architects, and even a few of Aalto’s former associates. Baker has been a popular dorm historically, Foxe says, “not because it overpowers residents with its architecture, but because it is such a total community space.”

Foxe notes that Baker is not divided by hallways or suite entrances like other dorms; the rooms on each floor are situated along one undulating hallway. The V-shaped double staircase at the back of the building leads to all six residential floors, so students in transit are constantly running into one another, even if they eschew the elevator. Also, Foxe says, unlike Simmons Hall or East Campus, Baker has a space that can accommodate the entire dormitory population: the dining commons. The room is versatile enough for dormwide social events, like dances, recitals, and even, Foxe recalls fondly, a tropical-­rainforest party complete with a student­-designed waterfall that cascaded from the balcony to the lower level.

“Aalto often said you should judge buildings for what they are like decades after they are built,” says Foxe. By that measure, the architect would probably be pleased at the sense of community his building has engendered. In 1958, when asked about his architectural philosophy, Aalto wrote, “True architecture, the real thing, is only where man stands in [the] centre.” On drop date at Baker House, it’s also safer at the center. You never know when a piano might sail off the roof.

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