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The Amazing Kresge Turns 50

The buildings Eero Saarinen designed for MIT sought to integrate science, art, and religion but stirred controversy.

When Kresge auditorium and its accompanying chapel were dedicated in May 1955, reactions to their striking architecture were mixed. “Seen by night, with the lights within, it is an opal,” wrote Edward Weeks in Architectural Record. “By day, it suggests one of those curved white hats the ladies have been affecting this spring, or, less elegantly and to the critics, it suggests a diaper.”

Fifty years later, their once controversial design may seem tame, but the Eero Saarinen buildings have long stood as symbols of MIT’s courageous approach to architecture. A first principle of modern architecture, said Saarinen, was that “each age must create its own architecture out of its own technology, and one which is expressive of the spirit of the time.” Following that principle often led Saarinen to innovative, if unusual, designs. The dome-shaped concrete roof of the auditorium—an eighth of a sphere that rests on three points of an equilateral triangle—is a mere nine centimeters thick at its thinnest point, making it proportionally thinner than an eggshell. Since domes have notoriously poor acoustics, the interior was hung with acoustic panels to reflect sound throughout the auditorium. The building’s external walls consist of glass panels that run floor to ceiling, in contrast to those of the nearby chapel, a windowless cylinder surrounded by a moat.

If the two buildings look nothing alike, it is because Saarinen didn’t repeat telltale motifs from one project to the next. “Most architects of his generation had a kind of signature style,” says ­Peter C. Papademetriou of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who is writing a book about Saarinen’s work. “I don’t think that was true in Saarinen’s case. He was rewriting the process depending upon the nature of the commission.”

The philosophy behind MIT’s commission can be traced to Sebastian S. Kresge, the self-made five-and-dime-store magnate who established the Kresge Foundation. In 1950, the foundation gave MIT $1.5 million, which, according to a memo sent to MIT president James R. Killian Jr. ’26, was intended “for a project concerning humanities and character building.”

The campus was in dire need of a center for cultural life. Saarinen’s commission was for a multipurpose performance space and a nondenominational chapel for small religious services. But more important, the university sought an architectural expression of the school’s postwar mission to “educate the whole man” as well as provide scientific instruction.

At the dedication ceremony, Killian told an audience of 1,200 that “science and art spring from similar creative impulses….These buildings can be used to reëmphasize that science properly used is a great moral and liberating force and that the scientist and engineer…must concern themselves…with those qualities of the mind and soul which we call spiritual.”

At a time when debates about science and values are more contentious than ever, Saarinen’s architectural vision may have even greater relevance than the 1955 Kresge dedicators could have foreseen.

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