The commanding presence of MITs main academic buildings along the Charles River expresses the universitys 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: Bosworths 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 MITs 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. Maclaurins choice of Bosworthwho 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 Vailwas 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 isnt 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 dont know anything about them. In Jarzombeks book, MITs inhabitants can find the history and the storiesthe names, faces, best intentions, and reluctant compromisesbehind the buildings that surround them.
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