Home    Site Search   Contact Us     Subscribe




City on a Site: Simmons Hall, Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Steven Holl Architects

Cambridge, Massachusetts: A new campus dormitory goes well beyond typical cinder block and laminates - the words "pixilated" and "audacious" come to mind.

by David Sokol
November 5, 2002

Student housing is typically the stuff of the cheap and the durable. Cinder block and laminate comes to mind, but when a university implements a new student housing program, the building that must take a beating also has to project an institution’s image. With its $1 billion “The Evolving MIT Campus” expansion, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is shooting for architectural statements “as diverse, forward thinking, and audacious as the community they serve,” in the words of MIT president Chuck Vest. The metaphor is that technology, in the broadest sense, is a marriage of scientific rationale and individual creativity – it’s not geeky, in other words.


MIT first approached Steven Holl Architects in late 1998 to design a new dormitory, and what came of the collaboration, Simmons Halls, definitely fulfills the latter of its threefold duties, but not without some unresolved tension. For the sake of making a rough comparison, think of it as Arquitectonica’s Atlantis on steroids. Where that Miami condominium has a brash, four-story cutout in its dead center, Simmons Hall has five large openings. And rather than displaying large swaths of colors, the 12-inch-deep heads and jambs of the dorm’s windows are painted with saturated primary and secondary colors; the elevation is completely covered in aluminum panels. Slightly hidden from view, the color scheme seems more fitting for conservative-minded New England, and yet it’s more frenetic, too (more on that later).


These two features – the structure and palette – are well suited for MIT’s personality project. To achieve Holl’s perforated volume, structural engineer Guy Nordensen developed a precast concrete system dubbed PerfCon. High-strength concrete, on which the façade’s aluminum panels sit, acts as a load-bearing wall. Despite all of the small window openings, the system can support the cantilevers of the building’s yawning cutouts and corners as well as its indentations. The concrete is reinforced by four steel bars that vary in thickness according to the stress of the cantilevers. The colors surrounding the windows were assigned according to the stress that portion of the PerfCon wall must bear.


Where red means high stress and blue equates a lesser load, and those windows that express no color whatsoever (unpainted aluminum panels) the least load, Simmons Hall transforms into a gigantic stress diagram that is as much in-joke to engineering students as it is a wonderment of color to passers-by. Scientific rationale meets individual creativity. It represents MIT’s working and studying population, but at whose expense? In originally arriving at his design for Simmons Hall, a bathing sponge served as Holl’s muse. It is the stuff of legend among us consumers of design. But when I mentioned this moment of epiphany to a sophomore living on Simmons’ fourth floor, she remarked that the administration would not allow students to paint their own dorm rooms.


A Question of Scale


Simmons Hall is a building that begs to be walked around. Because the windows are so deeply inset, a head-on view of the building’s elevation presents a gray, metallic face, and reveals little of the jambs’ colors. Circle the building, and its more exuberant dimensions come to light: step slightly off center and the fenestration is sharply framed by color, continue rotating so that you’re looking at an elevation from its side and the building explodes in a pointillist (pixilated?) style. A pedestrian rounding Simmons Hall gets to know it better, and even if the color program fails to delight after more than one careful viewing, that it requires a careful viewing at all suggests that Holl and Nordensen really didn’t have mere entertainment in mind when they conceived the project.


Color or no color, one’s distance from Simmons Hall also changes an understanding of the thing. The building is 10 stories tall – a bit oversized for Cambridge, perhaps, but in keeping with the Boston skyline that sits directly across the Charles River. More remarkable is its footprint. Measuring 54 feet deep by 385 feet long, the 195,000-square-foot building, which was required to make room for 350 student beds, could have simply devolved into a massive, rectangular slab. Its large openings play the part of good neighbor by preserving view corridors to the river and the skyline for adjacent residences.


Despite the kind gesture, the dormitory plays an optical trick that makes it appear too big for its own good. Most of Simmons’ windows are 22-inch squares. From close up, this pattern, which begins at grade, is intellectually manageable and almost toy-like. But the building is immediately surrounded by nothing, and as soon as you move away to a point where you can no longer measure human scale against architectural scale, it is overwhelming. Of course, the voids surrounding Simmons (formerly industrial buildings) will someday be filled in – but in the meantime, nothing sits so nearby that the building can be grounded. The effect is only exacerbated by the large perforations, which frame the sky rather than the architectural context. In terms of gigantism, Simmons Hall is a recidivist.


By blurring bodily senses of scale, earth, and sky, the vision is not only physically disorienting, but it also effects the image of a futuristic city. From afar, 30 rows of windows translate into 30 stories of space-age inhabitants hovering in the blue ether.


If you can catch your breath from it all, that image happens to be perfectly fitting. Simmons Hall provides a home for all of the functions of a self-contained city. Among other amenities, a 125-seat theater, dining spaces, fitness center, computer clusters, study spaces, and lounges are all inside, not to mention housing for undergraduates and their two housemasters, and 10 graduate student and five visiting scholar apartments. A diversity of uses and users is the stuff cities are made of.


According to project architect Tim Bade, “What we did is distribute practice rooms, photo lab, game room, multipurpose rooms, and the like throughout the building. Students are always moving around the building. We tried to mix it up so that nobody really owns these things, that they’re communally shared.”


Thanks to its five large openings, getting from one destination to another is also a challenge. The 10th floor, for example, is incised twice. Given separate vertical passageways, the floor is transformed into three smaller and distinct communities.


The scheme thwarts those among us who take routine for granted. Elevators can always be used, but even then, an elevator that provides access to one floor does not necessarily arrive at the correct portion of the floor. And so it’s back down to a floor not punctured by one of the large openings, wander over to another elevator, go up, and try again. Simmons is extremely difficult to map cognitively. And yet this crazy quilt interior circulation does create neighborhoods – which can be further subdivided into the so-called “enclaves” of single and double dormitory rooms that share a communal bathroom. Although it makes for interior movement that is as potentially dizzying as the experience of viewing Simmons out of doors, this Powers of Ten approach is indeed a systematic approach to city-building.


Appropriately, Holl’s firm’s official language dubs Simmons Hall a “vertical slice of a city.” It may also be like a good, old-fashioned college. At schools like Harvard and Yale, students are assigned to houses or residential colleges, each of which represents a cross-section of the university community, and features many of the same conveniences of self-contained living. Simmons Hall carries on this heritage of elite housing, without emulating its cousins by striking a historicist pose.


Simmons and Socializing


Just as a city has its neighborhoods and special events venues, it also has its architectural misfits. Inside, fixture choices echo the so-called “porosity” narrative first introduced by the façade, like the perforated ash drop ceilings that line the corridors. On the renegade side, however, the interior is dotted with amorphous plaster shapes – more akin to the forms of sponges of the living, undersea variety, and not those of supermarket shelves.


These “blobs” disrupt orthogonal walls, span multiple stories, and generally appear like tremendous drops of gray wax, and they correspond with the façade’s few interspersed amoeboid windows. Hollow from the inside, the blobs house student lounges, and that this non-residential function should correspond its odd shape to equally oddly shaped windows reflects the modernist tradition of relating exterior to interior. But from outside Simmons, it’s impossible to know that the windows do signal the otherworldly volumes that intrude upon an otherwise Euclidean landscape. It’s a secret for the residents alone.


It is also a solution to their boredom. Just as the building’s large openings transform Simmons into an experience that happens on multiples planes, these shapes actively contradict the idea that a user simply inhabits a rectangular (or L-shaped) room within a rectangular box. As Bade puts it, “This is basically the typology of a double-loaded corridor building, but we were thinking about how do you make a double-loaded corridor building interesting. We tried to have the hallways end in daylight, for instance. And we interrupt the double-loaded corridors – we have the atrium spaces bust into them, really trying to create a sense of surprise and curiosity, an enigmatic quality that really makes you want to walk through the building.”


In some ways, users may want to relate to these blobs as much as they do to the building elevations. If they don’t spark one’s curiosity to explore the whole building, they’ll at least pique enough curiosity to take a look inside. Constantly intervening, the blob spaces never cease announcing themselves to the residents. You know these lounges exist for reading, cooking, or movie marathon-ing, and so if they suffer from lack of use, I can’t imagine invisibility will be the reason for it.


Significantly, Robert Campbell, who calls the blobs “smoke signals,” explains just how important it was for MIT to have such loud public spaces: “No longer is the typical student a white male engineer. Now, 43 percent of students are women. Students arrive with a variety of backgrounds and ambitions and MIT believes they need to meet and learn from one another.” By spanning multiple stories, Bade says, students can also meet people other than their immediate neighbors, and so are not forced to identify themselves by the floor on which they live.


Students will occupy the blobs for another, less noble reason: The individual dorm rooms are just not all that convenient. Although the windows are certainly large enough to encompass a resident’s field of vision from close range, the square windows, nine to a room, create too many gaps in daylight and views for some of us to endure. Moreover, each window has its own curtain. The strategy permits a student’s privacy without sacrificing daylight, or can optimize lighting for different functions (think computer glare). And yet I imagine that instead of juggling the constant opening and closing of curtains, students crunched for time will gravitate toward the bright, uninterrupted lounge spaces.


But let’s not pin too many hopes on these blobs to activate space. Sometimes, they just appear as objects. Simmons’ hallways, for instance, are an expansive eight feet wide, and spacious enough to accommodate multiple public interactions. When the outside perimeter of a blob interferes in the hallway-cum-streetscape, it seems as if it’s literally trying to push students together, forcing them to interact. But the hallways are just so wide, that that just doesn’t seem possible. Socializing will happen according to whim or need, not environmental determinism. On the other hand, this is fertile ground for skateboarding. And unlike painting one’s dorm room, that’s an activity that the administration can’t prevent.


Simmons Hall, which has already received a 2000 Progressive Architecture Award and 2002 NY AIA Design Award, opened in September.


Client: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

Senior Project Manager: Jonathan Himmel

Project Manager: Thomas Murray, Casali Group, Inc., Somerville, MA


Design Architect: Steven Holl Architects, New York

Design Team: Steven Holl (Principal), Timothy Bade (Project Architect), Ziad Jameleddine, Anderson Lee (Assistant Project Architects), Peter Burns, Gabriela Barman-Kramer, Annette Goderbauer, Mimi Hoang, Matt Johnson, Erik Langdalen, Ron-Hui Lin, Stephen O'Dell, Christian Wassmann (Project Team)


Associate Architect/Architect-of-Record: Perry Dean Rogers | Partners, Boston

Design Team: Charles Rogers, Peter Ringenbach (Partners in Charge), Michael Waters (Project Architect), Jeff Fishbien, Samantha Pearson, Brent Stringfellow, Gerry Gutierrez, Brad Prestbo, Alejandro Soto, Mark Wintringer (Project Team)


Landscape Architect: Child Associates

Structural Engineer: Guy Nordenson and Associates, New York

Engineer of Record: Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc.

MEP Engineering: Ove Arup & Partners, New York & Cambridge

Lighting Design: Fisher Marantz Stone, New York

Contractor/CM: Daniel O'Connell & Sons, Holyoke, MA

PerfCon Concrete panels: Beton Bolduc, Inc. Quebec

Cladding & Windows: Cheviot Corporation

Public Art: Dan Graham, artist


Named America's favorite architect in 2001 by Time magazine, Steven Holl established Steven Holl Architects in New York in 1976. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, as well as the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University are among his best known works. A writer and professor as well as an architect, Holl's honors include induction as a member in Art in The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000.


In October 2002, the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota and the Parking Garage and Entry Plaza (Phase I) at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City opened.


Founded in 1923 as Perry Shaw & Hepburn, Boston-based Perry Dean Rogers | Partners has a national reputation for service to academic and cultural institutions. Over the past 79 years, the firm has completed or is currently involved in projects for more than 100 colleges and universities. Projects have ranged from feasibility studies for small, independent colleges to master plans for large universities, to major renovations or additions to existing buildings, to the design of new buildings. As a consultant to Steven Holl Architects, Perry Dean Rogers | Partners Architects worked in collaboration with Steven Holl on all phases of the Simmons Hall project from design through construction. PDR|P was also the Architect-of-Record for the project.


At MIT, the firm has also recently overseen the renovation of Alvar Aalto’s Baker House Dormitory. Other current and recent university clients include: Harvard; Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering; Yale; Fairfield University, Bowling Green State University; and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and new libraries at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, the University of Colorado at Fort Collins, Webster University, Marshall University, Dickinson College, and the expansion of the National Library of Medicine.


About the author: David Sokol regularly contributes to Architectural Record and Metropolis magazine's online feature “Urban Journal.” This is his first review for ArchNewsNow.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Kevin McCarthy)
On the other side of the fence: MIT's Simmons Hall is a "vertical slice of a city."

(Andy Ryan)
Head on, the dormitory looks almost a conservative gray.

(Andy Ryan)
Move to the side, and Simmons explodes in color.

(Andy Ryan)
Front elevation: to the distant pedestrian, the windows' small size makes the 10-story building look larger than it is.

(Andy Ryan)
The rear elevation is less complicated than the front, but in no way is it simplistic.

(Andy Ryan)
An aerial view places the dormitory's scale within a wider, and less dizzying context.

(Andy Ryan)
The windows measure approximately 22 inches square; some openings were filled in with concrete to better bear the structural load.

(Andy Ryan)
The exterior includes perforated aluminum panels, in the spirit of "porosity."

(Andy Ryan)
Heads and jambs measuring 18 inches deep surround the dorm's many square windows.

(Andy Ryan)
The lobby: stairs lead to elevator banks on the second floor; the first floor will include communal uses, such as a street front dining hall.

(Andy Ryan)
A student lounge (these "blobs" were made for dancing, or were they?)

(Andy Ryan)
The curving plaster forms of the dorm's lounges are cavern-like.

(Andy Ryan)
A skylit atrium stair

(Andy Ryan)
The Holl-designed dorm room furniture echoes the "porosity" theme; it is most space-efficient when fitted against the window wall. Inset in the window frame, the curtains remain operable.

(Andy Ryan)
A typical dorm room includes nine windows. The modular furniture maximizes efficient room layouts.

© 2002