Simmons Hall, MIT

Simmons Hall

Steven Holl Architects with Perry Dean Rogers Partners, 2002

Harleston Parker Medal, 2004

LEED registered

Holl’s aluminum clad volumes are shaped by their site on the outside and by the lives of MIT students on the inside, to become a compelling sculptural composition on a campus filled with great architecture.

This rectangular block of student housing is broken into three somewhat separate towers to reduce the anonymity of typical collegiate dormitories and to offer a more congenial face to the Cambridgeport neighborhood north of the site. Each floor has windows at three different heights – sitting level, standing level, and upper bunk level – providing intimately scaled portholes that turn the façade into an abstract canvas on which other elements are projected. Though compelling from the exterior, these constrained views can be depressing for the residents.

Common spaces on the lower levels connect the towers back together, their glassy articulation echoed at open terraces that punctuate the building volumes. Large amoeba-shaped windows mark the lounges scattered throughout the building. Color appears as a haze beneath perforated metal panels, or as vivid returns on windows, the shade indicating the intensity of structural loads.

Inside, the lounges and stairways wind their way up and down the building, their organically shaped walls deforming hallways in an effort to coax students into social situations. The lower-level communal spaces shaped by concrete, wood, glass, and metal provide a sensuous if sometimes confusing series of experiences.

Holl’s projects often begin with experiential metaphors. Here it was the notion of a sponge, whose porosity would provide a multiplicity of opportunities for social engagement. His intentions were compromised by contemporary life safety codes concerned about creating passageways for fire and smoke, although the spatial exuberance certainly hasn’t been extinguished. The cost of the project was astronomical.

Source: HPM Jury report