The lyrics to many alma maters celebrate their colleges’ resplendent places—the “hallowed halls” and “time-honored walls,” the surrounding “golden orchards” or “sunlit slopes.” There is no mention of that well-lit basement lab, or secluded corner for thinking and napping, or the most convenient bathrooms; yet these mundane spaces are crucial to the quality of campus life. For students, the campus is where they live, work, forge friendships, make discoveries, and occasionally sleep. Because campus architecture must meet a multiplicity of needs, majesty and practicality need to coexist.
MIT’s campus has no shortage of awe-inspiring buildings—with its original Beaux Arts group, designed by class of 1889 alumnus, William Bosworth, and its more recent architectural gems, by such renowned architects as Eero Saarinen, I. M. Pei ’40, Frank Gehry, Alvar Aalto and Steven Holl. The upcoming symposium, Designing A Place for Inventing the Future: The MIT Campus, Then, Now, Next, will examine how architecture at MIT influences education and campus life. In advance of the event, we asked several MIT students to ruminate on how spaces on campus shape their interactions and their research and what architectural trends they think will best serve universities in the future. They also shared their thoughts on the necessary spots that every research institution needs.
What is your favorite space on campus? Why?
“On a sunny day, I like the steps outside Building 10 facing Killian Court. The view of Boston and the Charles River is perfectly framed by the MIT buildings that surround the green. At night, I enjoy the Building 7 lobby (under the dome) when the student dance groups are using it as a rehearsal space. I am not sure why the clubs choose to rehearse in such an exposed spot; my guess is that they use it out of necessity, with no alternative multipurpose space on campus. It is such a joy to experience a moment of their artistry while walking through, particularly when working late at night.” – Irmak Turan
“One of my favorite work spaces is the basement of Dewey Library. It is not a particularly attractive space, but it is quiet, and has comfortable chairs, space to walk around, and lockers. Bathrooms, hot and cold water dispensers, and printing facilities are nearby. It lacks natural light, but it is astonishingly difficult to find a comparable space with these amenities on campus. I feel self-conscious for choosing a library basement as my favorite space, but it tells me that we have a lot of work to do on campus.” – Sebastian Schmidt
“There are far too many to list here, but I’ll name a few: Michael Heizer’s Guennette sculpture on Killian is the perfect place to sit outside on a nice day. It’s beautiful and relatively secluded, but still allows for some people-watching depending on which direction I face. It’s not ideal for bringing a laptop (wifi signal is weak) or problem sets (they always seem to blow away), but in a sense that makes it a distraction-free thinking place. Rotch Library is my favorite spot for being productive. It’s a bright and beautiful space, but it also has all the amenities I need to be in study-mode (tables, comfy chairs, outlets, etc). Hayden Library is another of my favorite work spaces and offers several advantages to me over Rotch. The relevant books for my research are there, the view of the river from the 2nd floor is beautiful, and the basement offers a dark alternative if I really need to buckle down and work without distraction. Sol Lewitt’s Bars of Color is a lovely place to sit and think. It’s incredibly quiet, peaceful, and bright. If I want to take a study break on a nasty day, it’s a great alternative to going outside.” – Carolyn Joseph
“Killian court: I like Killian court because it’s green and outdoors and feels grand. It’s nice to sit there when it’s warm enough.” – Qiuyi Bing Li
“For what it’s worth, I really like the Z-center. I really feel like it has both the popularity and quality that a good space should have. There are a lot of other places on campus that I really like, but they don’t really have both of these aspects. Killian court is really nice but people don’t really use it that much, with the exception of tourists. The student center is really well utilized and people are always there, but the quality of the building itself is pretty poor.” – Stephen Morgan
What pitfalls should architects/engineers/designers avoid when designing university campuses?
“It seems that many of the newer spaces around campus have large glass windows—which has a way of making the spaces look beautiful, but definitely changes the way I use them. I’m far less likely to nap out in the open or work late at night in a space that feels so exposed.” – Carolyn Joseph
“Making things TOO industrial. My friends in Chemical engineering (building 66) complain about this.” – Qiuyi Bing Li
“There should be a good balance between circulation spaces and lingering spaces. Universities are about learning, communication, and the development of ideas. On a well designed campus, spaces for those activities should be within reach wherever you are. Seats, quiet nooks, thinking spaces with armchairs, corners to have ad hoc conversations or eat lunch are essential. I had high hopes for the renovation of the Sloan building. I visited it recently and was disappointed. The furniture is uncomfortable, and the color schemes and materials are cold and uninviting. It feels like the lobby of a corporate office building, which is typically only populated by visitors and job applicants waiting for appointments, making it a locus of stress and anxiety.” -Sebastian Schmidt
“The biggest problem with buildings on campus are ones which have spaces and layouts which are not useful or complicated. Stata is a great example of this. There are many floors that do not connect and the room numbering is completely nonsensical. In a large campus people need to move around a lot. The building should be functional first, and then aesthetically pleasing second.” – Stephen Morgan
“The noise level should be controlled well since it significantly affects students’ productivity.” – Hao Kang
“Trying to control the spaces too much, both programmatically and thermally. Students can creatively adapt to any space, so long as it is pleasant and attractive. Good daylight and the option to naturally ventilate will make nearly any space desirable, particularly if the students can use it flexibly.” – Irmak Turan
If you were working to improve the MIT campus, what features or physical spaces would you address?
“I would add benches and furniture outside, and more nooks, booths, and other study and work spaces scattered across campus. Sometimes I am walking back from a meeting or appointment and I just want to sit down somewhere in a reasonably quiet space to type up some notes, edit some writing, or catch up on emails. Finding a suitable space is often a challenge. I would also get more armchairs with high backrests for the libraries to help turn the reading rooms into actual reading rooms. With the exception of Barker, our reading rooms are part of the stacks or the desk and circulation areas. I often see people eat their lunch inside the libraries, and I suspect that many simply don’t know where else to go, and it makes me sad. I also think that at a research-heavy institution like MIT there should be more dedicated writing space – a little bit like a computer lab, but with more desk space and just external monitors and peripherals. Bathrooms and hot and cold water dispensers, as well as a microwave and a space to eat should be nearby.” – Sebastian Schmidt
“Better designed outdoor spaces. There are so many underutilized areas on the campus between and around the buildings; improving accessibility and adding outdoor furniture would make these spaces more desirable. This would make use of an existing resource that is currently lying dormant. Secondly, I think the campus needs more widely distributed bike racks, located at all building entrances.” – Irmak Turan
“Having lounges with sofas on every floor would be nice.” – Qiuyi Bing Li
“For me this is very clear. The one major space that MIT lacks is a cohesive dining experience. A central and high quality dining hall that serves the entire campus would be make a big difference in the culture on campus. This is obviously much more geared toward undergraduates but with so much money spent on improving the social culture of the campus it is really unusually that, besides the student center and dorm dining halls, there isn’t really a central place to eat and socialize between classes and work.” – Stephen Morgan
“I would address more restaurants. Most restaurants inside MIT campus are not good.” – Hao Kang
Are there trends in engineering/architecture/design that you are particularly enthusiastic about and would like to see applied to campuses?
“In an age where the delivery of course content is increasingly moving to online platforms, campuses will have to place more emphasis on open and unstructured exchanges, and less on traditional classroom instruction. Just like start-ups and new formats of entrepreneurship have turned traditional offices into spaces for increased creative exchanges, the changing nature of higher learning will impact the physical structure of campuses. Trends towards collaborative and flexible spaces that blend work and leisure could prove to be instrumental in the development of creative ideas. MIT’s Media Lab has been at the forefront of those trends for some time, and I would welcome more spaces like it in different contexts across campus.” – Sebastian Schmidt
“What about sit-stand desks in the library? I used one at a summer internship and loved being able to stand up and stretch while I worked.” – Carolyn Joseph
“I would like to see the Institute address environmental issues using a long-term approach that accounts for the full lifecycle impacts of any new construction on campus.” – Irmak Turan
“I really like the newer style buildings which use more glass and larger windows (the new media lab has this style). Obviously MIT has a lot of restrictions due to the historical significance of the campus and it’s skyline across the Charles River.” – Stephen Morgan
“Not particularly, but I can say that I’m NOT enthusiastic about the whole ‘use glass for everything’ trend. From what I understand it’s not very thermally efficient and somewhat overdone.” – Qiuyi Bing Li
In your opinion, what will every campus need in the near future? in the long-term?
“This might seem counter-intuitive, but with a trend towards dispersal in the delivery of education, I think that physical cores of campuses may become more relevant again. Imagine a campus service center that houses various support services, where you can eat lunch and have meetings, and that is located centrally so that it also becomes a central circulation space for many people. Imagine a much improved version of the student center, with booths and central concierge or scheduling services almost like what you see at career fairs, in a location such as where MIT.nano is being constructed.” – Sebastian Schmidt
“I think that campuses will need to integrate technologies into building designs. In the past many buildings required computer labs and spaces for computers. Nowadays most people have cellphones or laptops. Buildings need to be able to evolve in ways that integrates these types of technologies into how they are designed.” – Stephen Morgan
“Green spaces to reflect and enjoy nature.” – Qiuyi Bing Li
“In the near future every campus needs more parking places.” – Hao Kang
“I think that residential experience will become increasingly important in the physical structure of campuses. With online learning on its way to taking over larger shares of residential education, the spaces in which we live, debate, and discover will be increasingly significant. The physical experience of being on a campus will not be replaced by digital technologies (for the time being, anyway). Instead, the role of content and style of instruction in setting schools apart will be taken over by the physical experience of attending a given school. In order to be able to meet the ensuing challenges, we need to learn more about what students, faculty, and staff do outside of the classroom, or while they are away from their desks. A student’s experience of taking a particular class will depend less on what it was like sitting in the lecture theater, and more on who they connected with and where they were when working on the problem sets. In fact, this is already a reality at MIT, but the spaces in which students work and interact are pragmatic and not particularly innovative at all. Study spaces are extensions of traditional understandings of offices and libraries. Offices and libraries have been changing, and I think it is time to not just push the envelope, but reinvent it when it comes to designing study and living spaces fit for a changing university.” – Sebastian Schmidt
Do you think your environment affects your work? If so, please explain or give an example.
“Absolutely. For me, busy or slightly distracting spaces are good to get work done that doesn’t require my full concentration, such as responding to emails or managing and sorting my research files. When I want to produce writing or think about the argument I want to make, I work best in spaces that are completely free of distractions. I often find myself choosing a workspace based on the type of work I will do.” – Sebastian Schmidt
“My environment most definitely affects my work. There are certain places around campus where I feel very creative (like in Bars of Color or sitting outside on Killian). These places are ideal for planning my day, sketching, just sitting, and even taking the occasional nap. But, in order to be productive, I need a more traditional workspace with desks, comfy chairs, and outlets.” – Carolyn Joseph
“Yes, most definitely. I find having a physical connection to the outdoor environment — either through daylight, views, or fresh air — helps my productivity and ability to concentrate. For this reason, I prefer to work next to a window, either at my desk, in Rotch Library, or in Hayden Library.” – Irmak Turan
“Yes. Too much noise will significantly reduce people’s productivity. In addition, I prefer some sunlight because moderate sunlight makes me happier when I’m working.” – Hao Kang
“Absolutely. The most obvious example is mood. Working in the basement with little to no natural light and exposed pipes can be quite depressing compared to working in a nice new laboratory. It also affects how people perceive your work and this can be very important when it comes to reputation and funding in the future.” – Stephen Morgan
“Yes. There are the immediate factors such as temperature, humidity and lighting which are distracting if they’re not in the right range. But there’s also social things such as whether other people are around. If nobody is around it’s a bit unmotivating, but if too many people are around it’s distracting. There’s also the physical side I guess. Sometimes our cramped office with (in my opinion) somewhat dreary walls is a bit of a downer.” – Qiuyi Bing Li
About the symposium
Designing A Place for Inventing the Future: The MIT Campus, Then, Now, Next, co-sponsored by the MIT 2016 Committee and the MIT Department of Architecture, takes place on March 30-31, 2016. Speakers will explore the forward-thinking design of the original buildings and how the flexible nature of these structures promotes interdisciplinary, collaborative research. They will also imagine future teaching and maker spaces.
Architect David Adjaye will participate in the symposium as part of his 2016 McDermott Award residency. He will discuss his design for the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in the session, “The Infinite Corridor and Beyond,” on Wednesday, March 30, 2016 at 1:15 pm, which explores campus architecture and design, including the story of MIT’s Main Group and its influence on other campuses during the past 100 years.
About the student contributors:
Hao Kang, PhD candidate ’19, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, MIT
“My research concentrates on fluid flow in rock fractures.”
Carolyn Joseph, MSc candidate ’17, Materials Science and Engineering, MIT; BSc ’15, Materials Science and Engineering, MIT
“I’m working with an industry sponsor to study aluminum casting, specifically methods for detecting solid particles in molten aluminum.”
Qiuyi Bing Li, PhD candidate ’19, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, MIT
“I am trying to better understand microseismicity (small earthquakes) generated by rocks fracturing (breaking). I hope it will help people in the field who are doing hydraulic fracturing (fracking).”
Stephen Morgan, PhD ’15, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, MIT; MSc ’11, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, MIT
“My research into rock mechanics focuses on the fracture processes associated with layered anisotropic rocks, such as shale.”
Sebastian Schmidt, PhD Candidate, History, Theory & Criticism, Department of Architecture, MIT
“My dissertation is on the relationship between war and cities in the 20th century. Specifically, I look at urban development and art in New York, Berlin, and Tokyo to argue that there is a direct transition from ‘global war’ to ‘global cities’ following WWII.”
Irmak Turan, MSc candidate ’16, Architecture Studies (SMArchS), MIT
“I am in the Building Technology group that is within the Department of Architecture. I am exploring how physical materials are used in buildings, and the impact of this use on natural resources and the environment.”