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Renovation of historic Baker House dorm at MIT kicks off residential building campaign

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This summer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology begins a major restoration and renovation of Baker House, the dormitory designed by world-renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

The building, whose unique wave shape is a landmark along the Charles River, is one of the seminal modern buildings in North America and one of just two permanent structures by Aalto in the United States.

It is also a key building in MIT's history, as it marked the beginning of a program to change MIT from a largely commuter school to a residential university. In quick succession, MIT also built or bought several dormitories along Memorial Drive and commissioned both an auditorium and a chapel by Aalto's compatriot, Eliel Saarinen.

The commitment to a first-rate residential life continues with the renovation of Baker House and the launch of a building program that includes a new athletic center, an undergraduate dormitory, and a graduate residence.

Designed in 1946-48 and completed in 1949, Baker House embodies both the architect's and the client's vision of social housing. At the time of the commission, MIT was articulating in a major report its intention to build "a physical atmosphere of order, peace, and beauty" to support the activities of "the constructive mind." In short, MIT wanted to construct a residential campus that would complete its educational mission by fostering a sense of community and collaborative learning.

The commission for the dormitory was a logical extension of Aalto's role as a teacher at MIT. He was first invited to campus in 1940 to introduce architecture students to the humanistic side of European modernism, represented in part by his own work on housing in Finland and Europe and his use of unique forms and natural materials.

The building's distinctive serpentine shape reflects the humanistic impulse. It was designed so that every student room faced the river, but at oblique angles that would both vary the views and soften the impact of the traffic on Memorial Drive. MIT added 60 student rooms during construction, which created some north-facing rooms and filled in several of the common lounges.

Despite those changes, the building -- with its great lounges, entry hall, and dining or "Moon Garden" pavilion -- has remained the most popular residence hall on campus. It succeeds, according to William B. Watson, associate professor of history and long-time housemaster at Baker House, because "Aalto had a profound understanding of the need to build a sense of community within an academic environment that made rigorous demands on each individual student."

Professor Watson added, "Students needed comfortable lounges where they could socialize with their neighbors; they needed a commons where all residents in the house could share meals, and they needed a focal point through which every resident would pass and thus come to know one another by sight if not always by name. Virtually every resident who has lived here has come to appreciate the humanistic genius of Aalto's design."

Today, however, the 50-year-old building no longer meets code requirements, and its mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems have reached the end of their useful life. The $24 million renovation will not only replace all major mechanical systems and fully restore the building envelope, but will also restore primary features such as the lounges and the dining pavilion to Aalto's original specifications.

The original furniture for the student rooms, designed by Aalto and his wife and partner Aino, is being restored as well. In addition, the project will upgrade and refine the lighting system. The final illness of his wife kept Aalto from designing a full lighting scheme for the building, so it has never been properly illuminated. The restoration will include the installation of new light fixtures based on Aalto prototypes.

Construction will take place during two consecutive summers, with students occupying the residence during the 1998-99 academic year. Upon completion in August 1999, the building will be rededicated with a 50th anniversary celebration, including exhibitions and a symposium.

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