Page C1.1 . 01 February 2006                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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A Modern More or Less Humane

by Joseph E. Pollack

Since before its completion in 2002, Steven Holl's award-winning MIT dormitory, Simmons Hall, has been garnering praise from the architectural community. But assessing a building as a professional critic is different from living in and interacting with it. I wondered how the students who lived there felt about it.

I took advantage of an open house for newly accepted students and joined a tour of the building. We saw the dorm rooms, lounge spaces, and common areas. I was able to interview students who were in the process of selecting a dorm, and I sought out opinions that were unaffected by any training in architecture. Through this informal, unscientific survey, I quickly discovered that the building much praised by critics is as much criticized by those personally involved with it.

According to his Web site, Holl's intention was to produce a porous structure that would promote free-flowing social activity and energy. The building does indeed seem to be a refreshing change from the material palette, primarily brick, of the surrounding campus. The Simmons Hall facade is covered with hundreds of L-shaped metal panels that frame small square windows. As intended, the building's monolithic form has the appearance of a permeable membrane.

To seek out lay opinions of the building, I talked to prospective students and their parents. They didn't discuss surface porosity or color composition of the polychromatic windows, but focused instead on the overall "feeling" of the place. One father said, "[The building] just looks way too huge.... I felt like it was going to fall over when we were looking for the entrance and I looked up the front of it.... It seems too big to be comfortable around it."   >>>

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Simmons Hall, Steven Holl's award-winning dormitory on the MIT campus, as approached from the southwest.
Photo: Joseph E. Pollack

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One of Simmons Hall's many exterior terraces as seen from the street.
Photo: Joseph E. Pollack


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