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« Architecture and Sex | Main | Digi-Cinema Developments »

April 26, 2003

Hot New Buildings

Friedrich --

What the heck, why not a change of pace? Here's news from the establishment (ie., avant-garde/big-media/prizewinning) architecture world about two of that world's hottest new buildings.

Holl's MIT dormitory

In Cambridge, MIT is winding up a 15-building, billion-dollar construction campaign with a heavy emphasis on innovation and "reinventing the student experience." The anodized-aluminum-covered dormitory Simmons Hall, by Steven Holl, is one of its showpieces. It cost $68 million, houses about 350 students, and opened last fall. It's a "vertical slice of a city," it has a "sponge" concept, and "porosity" is its theme. (Holl's firm presents the building here.)

MIT's gigantic new-building program has been masterminded by the university's Dean of Architecture (interesting to learn that he's now moving over to head the school's department of Media Arts), who has this to say about what all this new work has in common:

The consistent use of transparency throughout the area and the creation of prominent presentation spaces have made the work of the departments much more visible. All this has done a great deal to strengthen the sense of community and common purpose.
Hadid's Cincinnati Arts Center

The Baghdad-born, British-based deconstructivist star Zaha Hadid -- routinely referred to as a "visionary" -- is finishing up her first building in America, the $34 million Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. It opens on May 3rd. Here's a description from the Art and Culture Network:

From the outside, the building looks like a wacky tower of variously sized boxes. The boxes fit together in a weighty collage that appears to hang precariously over the intersection below. The whole resembles an abstract piece of contemporary sculpture, a larger version of the works inside. Inside, this boxy jumble turns out to be made up of separate rooms meant to function specifically with different art pieces. The environment for each work complements the work itself.

Here are some words of description, meant in praise, from the CAC's own director, as quoted by Jeffrey Stein in the Cincinnati Post: 

"The entire ground floor is surrounded with very high 18- to 20-foot windows,'' Desmarais said. "There also is to be what Hadid is calling an `urban carpet' or molded concrete that begins outside the building as a sidewalk and then flows into the interior of the Rosenthal Center."

The visual experience for visitors won't stop with the urban concrete carpet. Desmarais said: "Crisscrossing in front of you in the (large interior) space are gigantic staircases that seem to be suspended in space because they don't need any columns to hold them up.

"The staircases are supported at each end by one floor to the next.'' Visual interest continues with the ceiling, Desmarais explained. "The ceiling isn't one flat space above you, but, in fact, it's several different levels."

Desmarais said the center, while quite sturdy and safe, gives "this sense of not danger but a slight insecurity about the building. Here it is this big, heavy concrete building suspended on a fragile glass base.

"It's a building that gets bigger and bigger as it goes up instead of smaller and smaller." The footprint of the building is only 11,000 square feet but its total space is 85,000 square feet.

"The building is composed of these shifted boxes that Zaha calls volumes," Desmarais said. "They are there in balance but give the sense that if someone jarred it too hard, it might come out of balance."

We clearly aren't talking about mere building here. Nope, we're talking about architecture.



posted by Michael at April 26, 2003


Okay, I'm stumped. Is the picture of the Cincinnati Arts Center by Zaha Hadid (kind of catchy name, that)on the left a design, and on the right the real thing? If so, it got a lot more "earthbound" in the process. Actually, the one on the right looks kind of like a Southern California motel after a bad car crash. Is that stucco--on a building in Cincinnati? If so, why? Please elucidate.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 26, 2003 11:34 PM

That MIT dormintory is REALLY ugly---ugly enough to make me not go to MIT if I had to live there, if I was the age to be considering going anywhere to college. Plus---350 students! What a cattle car. Yuck. I don't think these particular university buildings represent much of a life partner for the New York skyscapers, to address Laurel's point from an earlier Hugh Ferris posting.

Posted by: annette on April 27, 2003 6:24 AM

The MIT dormitory is the ugliest building to go up in Cambridge in years. My wife is convinced that the tiny windows were concieved as a defenestration impediment because of the rash of suicides on campus in previous years - although one could imagine that its presence on the skyline would produce the exact opposite effect elsewhere in the city.

Actually, Cambridge seems to have more than its natural share of bad architecture. Long sections of Memorial Drive along the Charles River look like they belong in Brazilia. It would be interesting to trace the impact that the tenure of Walter Gropius at Harvard had on the city.

Posted by: Xefer on April 27, 2003 8:56 AM

Hey Friedrich -- Yeah, the pic on the left is a computer image, the pic on the right a photo of the actual building. Nice little lesson in "this is how they sell it to you, and this is what it turns out to be like," no? Funny too how many of the decon buildings have that L.A.-after-the-quake look that you're talking about.

Hi Annette -- What? You don't find that the new MIT dorm makes you all excited about taking part in a reinvented student experience? Me neither. To me, it looks like the headquarters of some godawful firm that makes industrial databases and expects all its employees to work 24/7. Which may more or less what MIT wanted. Hey: good subject for a posting: the aesthetic tastes of nerds and geeks. Who knows, maybe they really like this kind of thing. They're certainly strange creatures.

Hi Xefer, How do you explain the proliferation of bad and ugly buildings around Cambridge? You're right, by the way, about windows and defenestration -- I'm told that there's always concern at MIT about kids throwing themselves off buildings, and that the windows in this building were designed this way partly to make final-exams-are-too-much suicides at least more rather than less difficult. One topic I'd love to see someone get into is how and when and why did the big institutions -- government, churches, schools -- start becoming sponsors of shitty architecture? Churches, town halls, libraries, dormitories -- these buildings used to be pleasing things that almost everyone was proud of. These days, your typical new dorm or town hall is found downright hideous by many if not most people. Brilliant job of capturing that market by the modernist crowd. Too bad for the rest of us.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard. on April 27, 2003 11:39 AM

Hey, did anyone else have a chuckle at the comments of the CAC's director? Take a peak at them if you happened to skim over them. He thinks it's really a groovy plus that the building produces a sense of uneasiness and anxiety in people -- the illusion of concrete balanced on glass, the upside-downness of it, the stairways that seem supported by nothing. I don't know about you, but a sense of anxiety, danger and unease -- that's exactly what I'm looking for from my interactions with museum buildings.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 27, 2003 11:54 AM

A sense of uneasiness and anxiety...that sounds more like what MIT is gunning for. Can you imagine if you were an artist getting your first museum showing ever and it was in the CAC? So people could be afraid that stairways are going to fall out from under them? A great way to appreciate your work.

Posted by: annette on April 27, 2003 5:47 PM

I was just thinking about the MIT dorm after your recent post on the new Princeton dorm. There was an article in the NYT awhile ago comparing the two efforts. Whereas so much of the modernism stuff was built because is was cheap, the pomo buildings are really expensive. The MIT dorm is costing as much or more per student than the traditional stone Princeton dorm. It will be interesting to see how pomo holds up physically. My guess is that it will fall apart as quickly as modernistic buildings, but will be drastically more expensive to maintain. Does it matter that no traditional craftsmanship goes into these buildings? It would, at a minimum, that it makes them difficult if not impossible to maintain. Is there any doubt about how these two dorms are going to age over the next 100 years?

Posted by: Paul Mansour on April 28, 2003 9:18 AM

Below is the New York Times article mentioned above comparing the new MIT and Princeton dorms.

This is an Oxford building by the architect of the Princeton dorm:

And an article from Metropolis Magazine about the Princeton dorm:

Dorm Style: Gothic Castle vs. Futuristic Sponge

The New York Times
November 20, 2002

The last time Princeton University significantly increased the size of its freshman class, in 1969, it needed to build a new dormitory -- fast. I. M. Pei designed an angular glass and concrete building, Spelman Hall, which went on to win a number of design awards.

Now Princeton is increasing its enrollment again, and the dorms it is planning could not be more unlike Spelman. The university is preparing to build a 500-bed residential college in the collegiate gothic style.

Picture ivy-covered stone walls, with archways, crenelations and gargoyles, reaching up to quaint slate roofs punctuated by gables and chimneys, and you have pictured collegiate gothic, a style with roots in the cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

Princeton's effort, which will require skilled masons to cut thousands of pieces of stone on the site, will cost more than $100 million, an astonishing $200,000 per bed. (In addition to dorm rooms, the buildings will include a dining hall, a library and a master's suite.)

That is about double what colleges typically spend on dormitory space. But in the world of elite colleges, it isn't the cost that is stirring controversy; it is the architecture.

William Mitchell, dean of the architecture school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has called Princeton's approach "silly" and "stultifying."

M.I.T. recently opened a new dorm of its own, with 350 beds, at a cost of $68 million -- just under $200,000 a bed. But that dorm, Simmons Hall, is by the New York architect Steven Holl, a modernist.

Dean Mitchell described Princeton's choice as "roughly the equivalent of requiring all e-mail to be written in Shakespearean English" and said it signaled "an astonishing lack of interest in architecture's capacity to respond innovatively and critically to the conditions of our own time and place."

The prime mover behind Princeton's new residential college is Meg Whitman, the president of eBay, a Princeton trustee and a member of the class of 1977. Ms. Whitman wrote, in an e-mail message -- without a hint of Shakespeare -- that her "fondest memories" of Princeton involved the old-style dorms in which she lived for four years.

"Collegiate gothic sets an ambience for learning that had a very positive impact on me," wrote Ms. Whitman, who, as if to prove her point, has pledged $30 million for the project, which will bear her name.

Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture and a Princeton trustee, said she thought that collegiate gothic -- the style of Oxford and Cambridge Universities -- reminded students that they were "part of a long tradition of intellectual life."

Ms. Plater-Zyberk said that Princeton had by no means abandoned modern architecture. It is about to erect a science library designed by Frank Gehry, and has recently completed buildings by prominent modernists like Rafael Vinoly and Enrique Norten.

The problem, she said, was that, with so many modern buildings going up, "the beloved historic quadrant of the campus" was shrinking relative to the rest of the campus.

The solution, in the view of Princeton's director of physical planning, Jon Hlafter, was to create "campus neighborhoods," giving academic, administrative, athletic and residential buildings separate identities, each based largely on architectural style.

To design Whitman College, Mr. Hlafter chose Demetri Porphyrios, a Princeton graduate best known for designing a 1990's quadrangle at Magdalen College, Oxford, that blends in with the much older buildings around it.

Mr. Porphyrios will probably not be getting a call from M.I.T. The institute's new dorm is covered with a gridded concrete-and-metal facade (inspired, according to Mr. Holl, by a bathroom sponge). The futuristic, brightly colored building towers over the M.I.T. campus.

Inside, extra wide hallways are meant as places to spend time in. Common rooms are enclosed in multilevel spaces that evoke the inside of volcanoes.

Vikash Gilja, an M.I.T. freshman, had several complaints: the ladder to his raised bed fell apart (so he now climbs up on bookshelves). And the gridded facade gives his room 15 separate windows, meaning he has to adjust 15 curtains when he wants more or less sunlight.

In plan, Simmons is fairly conventional: lots of single rooms that open onto hallways, interrupted occasionally by common rooms. Double and triple rooms are going out of fashion, according to William Rawn, a Boston architect who is designing dormitories at Williams, Amherst and Swarthmore Colleges.

"More and more kids are coming from households where they have their own bedrooms and they are expecting to have the same in college," Mr. Rawn said.

In addition, he said, "Today's sexual mores are leading to the desire to have single bedrooms."

Mr. Rawn said a typical suite these days may have four single bedrooms, as opposed to the two doubles of a generation ago. The proliferation of singles raises the cost of construction. Then, because there are so many singles, Mr. Rawn said, the universities need more and bigger common areas, to foster a sense of community.

Mr. Rawn likes to create community by making hallways that attract students. An effective hallway, he said, is "so wide that it becomes like an urban street."

Another way to create community is to build dormitories around courtyards. Dean Mitchell of M.I.T. said that despite his dislike for the style, "the urban design principles underlying the collegiate gothic quadrangles are perfectly sensible."

At Princeton, suites of double and even triple rooms with fireplaces -- and long hikes to communal bathrooms -- were common in the dormitories built before World War II. The narrow buildings could not accommodate hallways. Instead, rooms were arranged around stairwells, called entryways, with their own doors to outside.

All these features will be missing from the new Whitman College. Fire regulations and disability laws effectively require hallways serviced by multiple stairways and elevators. Fireplaces are considered unsafe.

In plan, there is not that much difference between Simmons and Whitman. The gap is stylistic.

Most colleges, including New York University and Columbia, have avoided the extremes. N.Y.U.'s newest dorms, including one on the Bowery and several on East 14th Street, are innocuous, indistinguishable from the apartment buildings all around them.

Of course, few colleges can afford the Princeton-M.I.T. approach.

Mr. Rawn, the Boston architect, said colleges typically spend $100,000 or less per bed. "Princeton and M.I.T. have raised the bar," he said. Whitman will require 2,500 tons of stone, cut on the site and fit into load-bearing walls 16 inches thick. Simmons, by contrast, required thousands of perforated-wood ceiling panels, no two alike. In both cases, economies of scale were sacrificed to style.

In the dormitories he designs, Mr. Rawn prefers the middle ground. "All architecture," he said, "is about memory and invention. Each school has to find the right balance of those two things."

Posted by: E. Rauch on July 25, 2003 9:11 PM

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