The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


The Simmons Hall Residential College at MIT

Several years ago the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began a careful study of its residential environment, and one of the models it paid special attention to was the residential college model. The Collegiate Way website was one of the resources the study groups used. Alumni of MIT, such as architect Jay Weber, spoke out in favor of a collegiate arrangement for the institute, and plans to increase the on-campus student population provided an opportunity to put some residential college principles into practice. The result was Simmons Hall, MIT’s first residential college.

The style of the Simmons Hall building, designed by architect Steven Holl, has been controversial. I’m one of the people who doesn’t much care for it. But the components included in the building are the components of classic residential college, including a cross-sectional population of 350 students from all majors and years, a dining hall, a library, a game room, an apartment for visiting fellows and a residence for the faculty master, a music room, and more (even a “chapel” of sorts). This shows that the group of MIT students, faculty, and staff who developed what planners call the “program” for the building did indeed have a solid understanding of what a residential college is and should be, even if the architect they eventually hired to implement that program did so in an oddball style.

These informal photos of Simmons Hall by Robert J. O’Hara were taken during a speaking visit to Cambridge. For more information about residential colleges please visit the main Collegiate Way page.

[Entrance plaque on the front of the Simmons Hall residential college]

The Simmons Hall dedicatory plaque, in steely sans-serif.

[Main entrance to Simmons Hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology]

The front entrance to Simmons Hall, apparently designed with no provision for the predictable cigarette butt disposal container and its attendant recycling bins.

[The Vassar Street facade of Simmons Hall]

The exterior facade of Simmons Hall. The building is not as vast as this perspective makes it appear: each of the square windows is only about two feet high, and there are perhaps five per story.

[The reception area in the Simmons Hall residential college]

Looking down onto the airy reception desk (left) and main entrance (right) of Simmons Hall. A reception area is a fundamental element of a well-designed residential college: it serves as a hub of information, a meeting point, and a place of welcome for visitors. (See another fine example at St. Aidan’s College, Durham.)

[The Simmons Hall Junior Common Room]

A Simmons Hall common area that could serve as a Junior Common Room. It is perhaps a bit small for that purpose and could be a little more screened off, but it feels open and comfortable, and the presence of the mailboxes along one wall will guarantee that it is regularly visited. (Having mailboxes within each residential college, rather than in a central campus mail facility, is a positive feature and an important part of making the colleges into homes.)

[The dining room in MIT’s Simmons Hall]

The Simmons dining hall, one of the most attractive spaces in the building. It is again a bit small for a residential college dining hall, but it is easy to see how it can function not only for regular meals but also for special college dinners. Over time it will gain warmth as the members fill it with the structures of their own lives.

[The basement lecture/concert hall in Simmons Hall]

A basement-level concert hall and lecture room in the Simmons Hall residential college. This is an excellent design element for a residential college, and because it is located just inside the main entrance and opposite the reception desk, it can be easily located by outside visitors coming for college-hosted public events. (For another example of how to allow outsiders to gain access to public residential college facilities, see the placement of the offices at Van Mildert College, Durham.)

[The game room at MIT’s Simmons Hall residential college]

The Simmons Hall game room, supplied with the usual residential college equipment: a pool table, a ping-pong table, and a foosball table. The unfortunate central pillar will limit the room’s flexibility. A game room like this one is an important element of good residential college design.

[The library and art gallery of the Simmons Hall residential college]

The Simmons Hall library and gallery space, on the second floor above the reception area. A residential college without a library is hardly a college at all, and the association of study space with gallery space makes for a happy combination: the library can double as a permanent museum of artworks by college members.

[A bare residential corridor in Simmons Hall at MIT]

An upper-floor residential corridor in Simmons Hall. These are perhaps the least imaginative spaces in the building. The triangular bulge in the left distance is one of several faux boulders designed to break up the monotony of the corridor’s walls.

[The blue-lit Simmons Hall meditation room at MIT]

The Simmons Hall “chapel”—a dimly-lit meditation grotto with three wooden benches affixed to the rear wall. In a street-level room such as this, looking out onto a parking row, it would have been better if the windows had been only translucent rather than transparent. And in the gray slush of a Cambridge winter I suspect the blue light will make this a very cold place; a mix of red and blue glass would have been warmer. Nevertheless, this is an interesting and imaginative manifestation of the ancient tradition of collegiate chapels found in residential colleges around the world. (For other examples, see the chapel of St. Paul’s College, Waterloo, and the chapel of Hild-Bede College, Durham.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021