Alumni Volunteer Connection

Modeling the Future

The view from his office window in building N51 may not be much, but from here Larry Sass can see the future of architecture.

Sass, who earned his PhD from MIT in 2000, is on the leading edge of a revolution in architecture that will change not only the way buildings are built but the very language of their forms. According to Sass, the use of computer models will take the practice of architecture into an exciting new realm where the venerable blueprint is a thing of the past.

Sass’s love of architecture began when he was 12, growing up on the tough streets of Harlem. He knew education was his ticket out, and after earning a bachelor’s in architecture from the Pratt Institute, he came to MIT in 1992 for a master’s degree. He says he chose to come here because he saw people practicing architecture focused on social change. 

“I made friends in the Black Graduate Student Association, and I saw what they were doing,” he says. “They were thinking about problems, trying to solve them, and talking about them over a period of time. It made me want to look at architecture in a different way.”

A year after he arrived at MIT, Sass was offered a chance to help create a computer animation of a proposed monument to the American slave trade, to be built on Sandwich Island in Boston Harbor. Although Sass had never touched a computer, he and then undergraduate Greg Anderson, SM ‘94, SM ‘96, developed an award-winning computer simulation of the monument. It was a turning point for Sass.

“I learned how to do cutting-edge research,” he says. “And I learned how computers work.” He also gained a valuable mentor-William Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. Mitchell, who is one of the visionaries of the digital revolution in architecture, became Sass’s advisor and encouraged him to pursue the field of computers and architecture.

“Computing is a great way to do architectural research,” says Sass, “because you can look at an architectural problem over and over again without spending a tremendous amount of money building things.”

As a PhD thesis, Mitchell asked Sass to model all of the unbuilt structures designed by Andrea Palladio, a famous Renaissance architect. But instead of creating computer simulations, Sass used a three-dimensional-printing machine that creates models from tiny droplets of molten plastic. Traditional architectural models are hand-crafted from wood or cardboard after two-dimensional plans. Sass’s printed structures are unusual because they allow an exact and detailed model to be built directly from a 3-D computer CAD file.

Three-dimensional printing is so named because of its similarities to two-dimensional printing on a standard desktop computer printer. Where computer printers place ink on a page in a specific two-dimensional array of tiny dots, three-dimensional printers place tiny dots of material-plastic, ceramic, or metal-in a specific array that builds into three dimensions. It’s a deceptively simple process that can create highly detailed shapes, often with interior cavities.

The three-dimensional architectural-printing revolution goes far beyond table-sized models, however. According to Sass, the printing technique can be scaled up to print real, full-size buildings, piece by piece. In the future, he says, buildings will be designed on computers and built by three-dimensional printers on the construction site, without the use of traditional plans.

It’s a radical approach, but Sass says Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry is already doing it. “He starts with a computer file, which he sends to the people who are going to build the building,” explains Sass, who has visited Gehry’s offices in Los Angeles. “Then they make all the parts from the computer file and reassemble them on site, with no drawings.”

As one of the nation’s few university researchers in three-dimensional architectural printing, Sass is in a lonely field that is sometimes unpopular with the traditional architecture establishment. “Students crave this material. They want to learn how to do new languages,” he says, adding that computer technology doesn’t change the fundamental elements of architectural design, such as space, light, and materials. “The basics are still important. Those who understand them will be the most successful.”

Like most young faculty members, Sass is working hard to make his program a success. He compares the current challenge to competing for the Olympic bike-racing team, which he did in 1992.

“I could have made it to the finals, but I lacked confidence in myself,” Sass recalls. “It was a huge disappointment, but I know that life gives you other chances and opportunities, just with different circumstances. To me, that new circumstance was coming here to MIT.” - Eve Downing

MIT Alumni Travel Program Booking Now

MIT’s alumni travel program reminds alumni that now is the time to book your 2004 travel plans. The Alumni Travel Program creates a wide variety of educational trips designed specifically for the MIT community, involving MIT faculty, local guides, and experts in a unique learning experience.

This summer the Alumni Travel Program is offering a trip to Finnish Lapland, a cruise on the waterways of Russia, an expedition to the North Pole aboard a nuclear icebreaker, and specially created family programs to Australia and Belize. Available fall programs include various destinations in Europe and China, and a trip to Vietnam and Thailand on the Mekong River hosted by MIT professor emeritus S. Jay Keyser.

“With the help of local alumni, we have designed a very special trip for this fall,” says Melissa Chapman Gresh, director of the MIT Alumni Travel Program. “This one is right in our backyard: the Great Maritime Traditions of Maine, September seven to nine. It features a number of local experts and MIT alumni with specially arranged tours. The North Pole trip also promises to be quite memorable.”

All trips have limited availability, so alumni are encouraged to reserve their places at their earliest convenience. For more information on all the MIT Alumni Travel Program trips, visit the program online at alum.mit.edu/lt. A complete catalogue of MIT’s 2004 trips, entitled MIT Explorer, is also available online or by calling the Alumni Travel Program at 1-800-992-6749.

Class Officer Nominations

The process for nominating class officers is officially under way. This year’s reunion classes, 4s and 9s, will be selecting class officers to serve five-year terms.

“This is a great way for alumni to be involved in the direction of their class,” said Christine Tempesta, director of alumni activities. “Class officers play an important role and have significant influence on where the class will direct its energies, so participating in the nominating process is an important way for alumni to be involved.”

Alumni interested in running for class officer, or who wish to nominate other alumni, are encouraged to contact Peter Muise at 617-253-8203 or via e-mail at pmuise@mit.edu. For more information on class elections, go to alum.mit.edu/ccg/classes/volunteers/.

Technology Day Driving Fast 

The annual Technology Day program is a showcase event at MIT Reunions each year. The daylong symposium tackles a provocative topic and features some of MIT’s leading faculty. For Tech Reunions 2004, the Technology Day program will examine the role of the automobile in the 21st century.

Entitled Shifting Gears, Technology Day’s morning program will focus on the automobile’s history, societal impact, and problems, while the afternoon program will examine new ways to think about cars and their role in our lives and society in the 21st century.

Technology Day is always a very popular event during reunions, so alumni are encouraged to sign up early. More information can be found at alum.mit.edu/reunions.

Grad Rat Proves Popular

The graduate-ring committee made a stir this past November with the introduction of a new graduate ring that lives up to the reputation of the older and more renowned brass rat. Dubbed the “grad rat,” the new ring captures all the charm of the brass rat and arrives courtesy of MIT’s famous skill in problem solving.

“The statistics on graduate ring purchases weren’t very impressive,” said Justin Werfel, a Course VI graduate student who served on the grad-rat committee. “Something like 85 percent of MIT undergraduates purchased a class ring, while only 30 percent of graduate students bought rings.”

Poor sales among the graduate community had a number of causes. “Undergraduates relate to their rings through their class year,” says Alvar Saenz-Otero, chair of the grad-rat committee. “Grad students may enter the Institute during the same year, but we often graduate in different years. We identify with our degree program more than our class year.” Since MIT offers 30 different degree programs, creating a ring that appealed to the entire graduate student population was a little daunting.

“Previously, grad students didn’t emotionally connect with their ring,” said Werfel. “It was a challenge we had to overcome to be successful.”

The grad-rat committee resolved that dilemma by creating and offering 30 different course designations, applied to the ring’s shank using a pantograph process.

“Pantographing,” said Saenz-Otero, “involved making a hard mold of the ring’s major features, while allowing different course icons and class years to be deeply engraved on a flat area of the department’ shank. Customizing the ring was critical to the committee because we want this ring to appeal to the entire graduate community. Anyone who received a graduate degree from a current degree program should find this ring appealing.”

Like the brass rat, the grad rat gets its charm from the many design elements “hidden” in the ring. As the grad rat brochure states, “the bezel features our endearing mascot holding a well-earned scroll [and] a slice of the free food so central to the graduate existence.” Other symbols of the graduate experience include a handless clock, a crane, a smattering of tents, and a pile of refuse that bears “an uncanny resemblance to a certain prominent new building.” The bezel scene is set at night, “as both beavers and grad students are, by necessity, nocturnal creatures.”

“The committee had some fun with the design,” says Werfel, “but most of all we focused on creating something that would have broad appeal to the graduate community. I hope we succeeded.”

Early reviews have been good, as the grad rat has been deemed a worthy complement to its older sibling, the brass rat.

Graduate students, both past and present, can obtain grad rats. To find out more, go online to mit.edu/gsc. Or order directly from the manufacturer, Balfour, at 1-800-225-3687.

Support the Team

Alumni are advised that February will be a special month, as athletes from around the Institute will be engaged in a national phonathon to reach out to alumni, asking for support of MIT’s fast-growing athletics program. While the Institute is,  of course, world-renowned for its educational and research accomplishments, it continues to receive more and more national acclaim for its scholar-athletes.

“The athletics phonathon is a wonderful chance for alumni to give back to a specific athletic program that is near and dear to their heart,” says Tim Poisson, the director of Alumni Fund operations, “and also a time to connect with current MIT athletes and learn how athletics continues to grow and enhance student life and learning.”

Cosponsored by the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation (DAPER) and the MIT Alumni Association, the athletic phonathon will run throughout the month of February, and more than 200 scholar-athletes are scheduled to participate. For more information on supporting MIT athletics, go online to www.mit.edu/giving.

Recording History with Class

To call alumnus marty greenfield consistent would be an understatement. Greenfield has been class secretary for the Class of 1951 for over a quarter of a century, and in 27 years of reporting he has never missed an issue.

 “I really enjoy keeping up with classmates,” shrugs Greenfield, who took on the secretary job in 1976 when he volunteered to help with his 25th reunion. “Finding out who is doing what and where, and then conveying it to fellow classmates, is what the job is all about. But the added benefit is you get to build a lifelong relationship with your class.”

Greenfield says being class secretary also keeps him involved with class affairs, which is among the most satisfying aspects of his role. “As a class officer, you are involved with class projects, particularly reunions,” says Greenfield. “Reunions can be a very special time, and I think our 40th was truly special for me.”

During their 40th reunion, the Class of 1951 created a memorable class project that still resonates at the Institute: the Fund for Excellence in Education at MIT. “Being a class officer gives you a chance to contribute to the direction of the class,” says Greenfield. “And we were all quite proud of our accomplishment.”

The Excellence in Education Fund was designed to encourage the development of new teaching modes. It serves as an incentive to faculty to develop innovative teaching tools for use in undergraduate courses.

“We looked at the fund as seed capital,’ in a way,” says Greenfield. “Its intention is to fund creative teaching methods, to help a striking new teaching technique get off the ground. If it works, the department can then step in and continue the needed funding.”

By 2002, the class had raised over $1.1 million-a source of pride to the entire class, says Greenfield. And because of the fund’s impact, two additional classes, 1955 and 1972, decided to officially join in, bringing the fund’s total to $2.2 million.

“The Class of ‘51 is an independent group,” chuckles Greenfield, placing extra weight on independent. “So we decided not to just hand a check over to the Institute. We really wanted to leave our mark, if you will. We conducted a great amount of research, interviewed faculty, talked with the president, and then decided that something important could be done with the money. In the end, we were proud of what we created.”

Last year, the fund supported Professor Steven Pinker’s computer-based multimedia demonstrations in psychology, helped faculty redesign the first-year curriculum in writing, and funded the creation of a geotechnical centrifuge to integrate physical modeling of large-scale engineering projects, to name but a few of its contributions. Other typical projects include the design of new curricula, training programs, instructional aids, and evaluation methods.

Rosaline Williams, former dean of undergraduate education, says that because of the Class of 1951 fund, “significant changes in the curriculum were undertaken all over MIT. It has turned out to be a wonderful partnership between MIT and its alumni.”

Every year since the fund’s creation, the number of faculty proposals has exceeded the funds available. Greenfield says the class views these proposals as a wellspring of innovation, and those left unfunded represent a real opportunity cost to MIT.

“It’s quite an honor and a lot of fun to review the proposals,” says Greenfield. “We review approximately two dozen proposals each year. Each class, plus the academic departments, have a vote.” Greenfield says the review process is intensive, and at times requires some additional research. “I’ve had to scratch my head a few times, but it keeps me current on the leading teaching methods at the Institute.” Since 1994, 47 educational projects have received support from the fund.

Greenfield, who retired seven years ago from Unisys, says he spends approximately four hours each month composing his class notes section for Technology Review. “The Alumni Association does a wonderful job keeping me posted on various classmates, which makes the task quite manageable.”

When not volunteering for his class, Greenfield stays active taking classes at Brandeis University’s Adult Learning Institute and attending Harvard’s medical lecture series.

As for his role as class secretary, Greenfield plans to continue it. “It’s really a lot of fun staying in touch,” he says. “The only negative is that as the class gets older, I find myself writing more obituaries, which is my least favorite thing to do.”

Greenfield and the Class of 1951 are now working hard to keep the Excellence in Education Fund going strong. As the members of the class get older, they have realized that now is the time to pass such a worthwhile project on to a younger generation, in order to continue its growth.

“We approached a number of classes and got a very positive response from the Class of 1999,” says Greenfield. “Even though they are at the beginning of this project, we want them to have an equal vote and equal voice in the type of projects that receive funding. Being recent graduates, they bring an interesting perspective and a great deal of value to the project. Most of all, they ensure that a good idea continues to touch a future generation.”

And for Marty Greenfield and the Class of 1951, staying in touch is what it’s all about.

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