Compton Laboratories, MIT

Skidmore Owings & Merrill, 1955

Harleston Parker Medal, 1958

Designer Gordon Bunshaft graduated from MIT with a Masters Degree in Architecture in 1935 and rose to prominence as a partner at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, whose large scale corporate and institutional work changed the character of American cities after World War II. Other major buildings include the influential glass and steel Lever House tower in New York (1952), the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Bunshaft was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1988.

Like most of Bunshaft’s buildings, the Compton Laboratories combines pure geometries, a modernist expression of contemporary technology, and a classical sense of repose. It provided for laboratories and classrooms on the west side of the building and offices on the east side. A lecture hall lies perpendicular to the building on the ground floor, along with a large space that originally housed massive IBM computers with whirling deck tapes and offered the public a view of 1950s state-of-the-art computing technology.

The subtle interweaving of horizontal and vertical elements scales the building to its campus context without undermining its monumentality. Originally the east side of the building faced on to a delightful greensward with maple trees bounding the edges that offered shade in summer and a glorious foliage display in the fall. That space was sacrificed to the Stata Center’s childcare center. Today the building may appear understated, or even boring, but at the time it heralded the arrival of modernism as an expression of American technical prowess and ambition.

Image: ©Ezra Stoller / Esto, 1957