Page C1.2 . 01 February 2006                     
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  • House of Sert

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    A Modern More or Less Humane

    continued

    This father also expressed his confusion in trying to enter the building, referring to the ground level's long stretches of glass and transparent walkways. Though these open areas are easily approachable from the sidewalk and are rather inviting, none of them are entrances into the building. Instead, the main entrance is a small indent with a metal overhang on the corner farthest from the parking lot.

    What Do Occupants Say?

    During a stop in our tour, I chatted with two students studying in one of the dramatically skylit reading rooms. One of them expressed conflicting opinions of the dorm. He referred to himself as an "unlucky soul" who lived in an L-shaped double room, which allows little variety in furniture placement due to its irregular shape and size.

    Neither student had much to say about the facade aesthetically, but they complained that each room's nine small, deep windows didn't seem to provide an actual view. Ironically, most of their positive comments had nothing to do with the building itself. Their favorite attribute of Simmons Hall, a view echoed by virtually every male student I spoke to, was the provision of video games and plasma-screen TVs in all the lounges.

    I asked the students if they thought the architect had achieved the goal of providing spaces that promote social activity and interaction, and I received blank stares. They asked: how could the designer think that straight-shot hallways promoted social activity? They said the building didn't seem to encourage social activity at all, either inside or outside. In fact, to correct some of the less successful social features of the building, students had run a contest called "Drill a Hole in Simmons Hall."

    Is There a Better Way?

    After the tour I spoke with a few more students, asking how Simmons Hall compared to the other MIT dormitories. They all agreed that Simmons looked too cold and sterile to be considered a possible home, and they'd prefer a dorm like the nearby Baker House, designed by Alvar Aalto in 1949.

    One young woman explained, "...Baker just seems more homey... I know [the interior] of homes aren't usually brick, but it still just feels warmer: like the colors of the wood instead of metal. When I wake up I don't want to feel like I'm in jail or something."

    The students and their parents consistently made references to Simmons Hall as being a fortress, a metal block, and a metal sponge, whereas Baker House was referred to as a home, a warm destination, and a place to live.

    I decided to see firsthand the appeal of Baker House and made my way across the field to find some residents to talk to. One student offered her opinions about both Simmons and Baker: "Great architecture isn't just trying to be art, it's functional. I know I'm not an architecture student, but it seems like [Simmons] is really impersonal and bare and feels like a hotel, not a home."

    She continued: "One of my architecture-major friends likes it a lot, I think just because it was designed by somebody famous. Basically you shouldn't make a dorm look like anything you want: you can't make a museum look like a bathroom."

    Another student was enthusiastic about the Baker House design and spoke about the building programmatically. He was amazed and appreciative that the architect had placed nearly all the circulation on one side of the building in lieu of a typical double-loaded corridor, and he especially appreciated the freedom to personalize rooms.

    Not only do Baker rooms provide more wall space than those in Simmons Hall, the wheeled furniture gives students spatial flexibility in customizing their arrangement and accommodates dozens of room configurations. Furthermore, students use chalk to personalize their spaces with drawings and notes, something not done in the impersonal concrete spaces of Simmons.

    Who's Right? Critics or Occupants?

    In researching lay opinions about Simmons Hall and the Baker House, I questioned a number of my own values regarding architecture and architectural criticism. Several critics view Simmons Hall as a fantastic work of architecture: they find the design concept inventive and unique, its schematic design interesting and progressive, and the finished product captivating and dynamic.

    Students, residents, and potential residents, however, find Simmons Hall to be a cold, sterile, and undesirable living space. My survey of these buildings from the user's viewpoint drastically changed my outlook on Simmons Hall, and I am more convinced that architectural success is not attained by physical forms, color compositions, or concept diagrams, but in the way the users appreciate and interact with the spaces.

    I believe architects should uphold their moral obligation to clients by attaining a complete understanding of the way a building works visually, physically, and temporally for the inhabitants. I believe that in doing so, functionally sound and beautiful architecture is the natural consequence.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Joseph E. Pollack is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in architecture, with a minor in philosophy from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

     

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    One of the large openings in the facade of Simmons Hall, by Steven Holl.
    Photo: Joseph E. Pollack

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    Looking up the facade of Simmons Hall.
    Photo: Joseph E. Pollack

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    Simmons Hall's main entrance.
    Photo: Joseph E. Pollack

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    Stair to the second floor of Simmons Hall from the main lobby.
    Photo: Joseph E. Pollack

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    Baker House, designed by Alvar Aalto.
    Photo: Joseph E. Pollack

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    Baker House, as approached from the athletic fields to the northwest.
    Photo: Joseph E. Pollack

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    The main entrance of Baker House is on the north side of the building.
    Photo: Joseph E. Pollack

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    Shadows cast on the southern side of the Baker House.
    Photo: Joseph E. Pollack

     

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