Visiting the Simmons Hall Residential College at MIT
25 January 2006 (collegiateway.org) — Last summer I had the pleasure giving a talk about residential colleges at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design as part of a seminar on campus housing organized by Jane Wright and Mike Evans of Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas. In addition to hearing from talking heads like me, the participants in the seminar got to tour the residential colleges at Harvard, and also to see one of the strangest residential colleges anywhere, the recently-constructed Simmons Hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Suppose for a moment that you hire someone to build a kitchen for you. You specify the usual components—a counter, a refrigerator, an oven, a sink—and then you let the person go to it. Upon your return you discover that the counter has been made from a lacquered surfboard, the refrigerator is shaped like a giant potato, the oven is fashioned out of welded orange marbles, and the sink is a gold-plated turtle shell. Well … you may not care for the style, but there’s no doubt that the new room is indeed a kitchen and not something else. This is the picture to keep in mind when considering Simmons Hall.
What architects call the “program” for the building—the number and types of rooms and other elements it should contain, and the amount of space to be devoted to each—was developed by a group of MIT students, faculty, and staff. They studied the residential college model carefully—the Collegiate Way website was one of their sources—and MIT alumni familiar with residential colleges, such as architect Jay Weber, spoke out about the benefits a collegiate system would bring to MIT. These initial planners did an excellent job, and they specified in the program all the standard components of a traditional residential college: space for about 400 students from all classes and majors, a dining hall, a library, a game room, apartments for visiting fellows and a residence for a faculty master, and more. MIT then hired an architect, Steven Holl of New York, to design a building that would implement the program as specified.
I’m happy to lay my aesthetic cards on the table: Holl’s design for Simmons Hall, inspired by a sponge and by “the concept of porosity,” is not one I care for. Jeff Roberts, a perceptive student who was involved in the planning process from its early stages and who understood clearly the goals and components of a residential college community, reflected on the result:
It’s been widely reported that Holl’s inspiration for Simmons Hall came to him while he was in the bathtub washing himself with a sponge. This, I feel, is an apt metaphor for the entire design process. Steven Holl, in his bathtub, indulging his own desires, and seemingly oblivious to the issues that were of concern to others.
But the egotistical style should not obscure the nature and quality of the underlying program components that the MIT folks, rather than the architect, built into the place. Simmons Hall is a residential college, and a fairly traditional one at that—no doubt about it.
Enough talk. What does it look like? I have just added a new page to the Collegiate Way’s section on residential colleges around the world, devoted to the Simmons Hall residential college at MIT.