Zesiger Sports Center at MIT
"We want to do this at the highest level of quality," says William Mitchell, Dean of MIT's School of Architecture & Planning. "The goal is to remake the campus and to recreate a powerful architectural culture, which has been the tradition at MIT."
MIT's Stellar Architecture
MIT's current building program, which entails about a million square feet (90,000 square meters), is the third in a series that began when the university left Boston in 1916 to move across the river to Cambridge. The first round of construction resulted in a collection of classically inspired stone buildings by architect William Welles Bosworth. Their domes, columns, and plinths gave MIT its early identity.
Thirty years later, the postwar baby boom coincided with MIT's second building boom. Most notable were the Baker House by Alvar Aalto, which underwent an extensive restoration by Perry Dean Rogers & Partners in the 1990s, and Saarinen's Kresge Auditorium and MIT Chapel, both of which have been recently rejuvenated.
"The role of the campus is changing, as are the intellectual challenges," says Mitchell, who serves as architectural adviser to MIT's president. "The emphasis now is to create a better campus community for the students, with more social spaces, and to encourage better intellectual interaction between the disciplines, which has not been strong in the past."
Phase One Complete
The new Zesiger Center faces Saarinen's auditorium and chapel, and it fronts the "Oval," an open space where students congregate for outdoor study and play. This has become the main social space on the MIT campus, and it was important for the new building to address it appropriately.
Roche brought a historical sensitivity to this project that few architects could match. In the 1950s he was a principal associate in design to Saarinen and worked on both the auditorium and the chapel. Roche understood that Saarinen intended the north side of the Oval to be a virtually unbroken wall of background buildings that would provide a proper visual field behind his buildings. Zesiger now completes that north wall.
Like many background buildings, which are all about not asserting themselves, Zesiger is a little hard to warm up to. Its exterior does not have much personality — coolly corporate might be the best way to describe it.
Compositionally, all of its cues are taken from its context. The height of the south facade is dictated by that of the Johnson Athletics Center immediately to the west, and the Stratton Student Center to the east.
The front facades of these two older buildings do not align — Johnson is a dozen or so feet (a few meters) farther south. In a classic first-year design studio response, the new building "connects the dots," its south wall gracefully arcing between its two neighbors.
Roche's building even copies Johnson's facade, with its large volume floating above an open arcade. In every sense, Zesiger follows the "good neighbor" theory of architecture. This is just the right response for this building on this site. It defers to the auditorium and the chapel, as it should, with a careful nod to the Oval.
Sports Venue Makes Campus Links
Inside, the Olympic-size 50-meter pool drives the program, and all the other fitness spaces revolve around it. The design makes the most of the pool's prominence. The upper levels of ball courts and exercise rooms surround the pool's large volume, looking out onto it through glazed walls. This not only expands the spatial quality of the smaller spaces, but also lends an invigorating sense of action to the pool space.
Urbanistically, Zesiger provides a north-south link between MIT's "Infinite Corridor" — the east-west pedestrian spine that extends through the campus — and Vassar Street behind the sports center to the north.
Part of this important link is a pedestrian pathway through the building, and it will become more important as Vassar Street is improved as an artery through the campus, which future plans call for. The interior pathway is partially glazed with views of the pool. An amateurish wall and ceiling mural, titled "Games of Chance and Skill" by artist Matthew Ritchie, is a product of MIT's "Percent-for-Art" program.
Zesiger is an earnest building that performs its role well. Future projects, including Frank Gehry's Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences now under construction, will no doubt provide the boldness that MIT seeks in its third wave of visionary building.
Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, an associate with Steven Winter Associates, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...