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Architect Mitchell offers closer look at campus projects

Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning William J. Mitchell gave a slide presentation, and then a walking tour for MITAC of all the new construction going on around campus. Here he gestures in front of Simmons Hall.
Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning William J. Mitchell gave a slide presentation, and then a walking tour for MITAC of all the new construction going on around campus. Here he gestures in front of Simmons Hall.
Photo / Donna Coveney

Professor William J. Mitchell showed slides of the early days of the MIT campus and outlined the overall framework for the "largest, most ambitious building program in MIT history" at a Nov. 1 talk titled "MIT in the 21st Century," followed by a guided tour of two of the campus construction sites.

"There's a lot of construction going on. But this is not just a collection of new buildings. There is a coherent vision and a coherent plan, and all this construction will add up to something much greater than the sum of the individual projects," said Mitchell, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, whose talk was sponsored by the MIT Activities Committee. "The fundamental idea is to weave everything together in a vibrant, residential community."

Mitchell's slides also illustrated the constraints MIT faces because of its urban setting and river boundaries. Slides also showed the inspiration of Thomas Jefferson and the Oxford and Cambridge quadrangle models of campus design, as well as the neoclassicism of Welles Bosworth, the architect who designed MIT's original campus and sturdily gracious stone buildings.

Bosworth, it turned out, had a fanciful side, too; his vision for the MIT campus included people arriving at Killian Court by boat, "as if this were Venice," Mitchell said.

He showed models and drawings of the buidings under construction. These include the Stata Center at Vassar and Main streets, designed by Frank Gehry; the Okawa Center (an extension of the Media Laboratory building on Ames Street), designed by Fumihiko Maki; Simmons Hall, the new undergraduate residence on Vassar Street, designed by Stephen Holl; and the Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center adjacent to the Johnson Athletics Center, designed by Kevin Roche. Completion dates for these buildings range from 2002 to 2004.

Mitchell promised more immediate rewards with the refurbishment of Lobby 7, currently home to a web-like scaffolding as the stone walls are cleaned and the dome skylight renovated.

"You'll be amazed at the transformation of Lobby 7--new natural light, less intrusive artificial light and newly clean stonework with a pinkish cast," he said.

Following Mitchell's talk was a brisk walk for a viewing of the new athletic facility and Simmons Hall.

His voice often drowned out by roaring construction vehicles, he spoke enthusiastically about the way the "two reflective walls of Kresge and of the new athletic facility talk to each other." He also noted that the two mutually reflecting walls already add a shimmering aspect, like the Northern Lights, to what might have been an alley squeezed by two two "big, brutal boxes."

"The programmatic goal was to make athletics an inviting, visible aspect of campus life," said Mitchell, referring to the new building's "curtain wall," as the window facing Kresge is known. "But this is not California. We didn't want it to look like a 'Baywatch' set. So you see athletic activity through a filtering screen. As the exterior light changes, so does the visibility of what's inside."

A detour around the Johnson Athletics Center, past the newly resurfaced Steinbrenner track and down Vassar Street mixed the old and new MIT settings perfectly.

"Vassar Street currently is not a great triumph of urban design, but it will become a major axis of the campus," said Mitchell. He stopped in front of the new undergraduate dormitory with its gray waffle-like grid exterior. Eventually, the concrete will have an aluminum coating that will reflect the colors of the sky, and light will pour inside through windows of various sizes.

Meanwhile, cranes hoisted steel plates overhead and trucks vied for Most Agonizing Reverse-Warning device. "It's like building a watch out of precast concrete," said Mitchell about the intricacy of the new dorm's construction.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 7, 2001.

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