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At college, a dorm that feels like real life

Times Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- In America, experimental housing projects went out of style in the late 1970s, along with other utopian adventures like lunar landings and the welfare state.

So the new Simmons Hall dormitory building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which opened here last month, is an anachronism of sorts. Granted, it houses students at one of the country’s most elite universities. But its aim is to provide a model for communal living that reflects the social tensions of a world that is no longer utopian in spirit.

Designed by New York architect Steven Holl, the $68-million dormitory is on a former manufacturing site at the edge of MIT’s urban campus, flanked by sports fields to the south and railroad tracks to the north. Its rigid, grid-like frame -- pierced by a series of public and communal spaces -- evokes a world of Cartesian order deformed by unconscious impulses. As such, it offers a compelling alternative to the visions of communal harmony of an earlier generation and the retro small-town developments that are the norm today. In its willingness to address contemporary realities, it is one of the most inspired housing designs built in America in decades.

Holl made his reputation in the 1980s with a number of small housing proposals that were imbued with an awkward, almost clumsy lyricism. Among the most compelling is the 1981 Bridge of Houses -- a series of simple, boxy structures with pitched roofs and arcaded passageways that was designed to rest on top of an abandoned segment of elevated train tracks in Manhattan’s West Village. Another design from that time is a series of diminutive houses that plug into the side of a warehouse workshop. Each house is capped by an odd-shaped roof meant to evoke its inhabitant’s skills as a craftsman -- a barrel vault for a mason, a wood frame for a boat builder.

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Later proposals sometimes expanded that vision to a surreal scale. A 1989 project in Arizona, dubbed the Spatial Retaining Bars, proposed a series of slender towers, shaped like upside-down Ls, that were intended to mark the outer edges of Phoenix’s urban sprawl and frame distant mountain views.

Never built, these projects nonetheless evoked the dreamy stillness of a De Chirico painting, a land of empty plazas and haunting solitude.

Since then, Holl has landed a series of major commissions, including the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland, and the Cranbrook Institute of Science in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. -- both completed in 1998. His design for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., is scheduled for completion in 2004, and he was recently selected to design a major addition and renovation for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. (That project is on hold after failing to win a bond measure earlier this month.)

But until now, Holl’s only major housing commissions have been outside of his native United States. The most celebrated is the 1991 Void Space/Hinged Space Housing in Fukuoka, Japan. Conceived as a series of solids and voids linked by a long bar, the project’s 28 apartments overlook a series of tranquil water courts. Each apartment has its own identity, and they interlock like a three-dimensional puzzle.

In his design for Simmons Hall at MIT, Holl ratchets that vision up another notch. At first glance, the building’s hulking rectangular form evokes the regimental order of a conventional modern housing block. A cafe, dining hall and performance space are set at ground-floor level; dormitory rooms are arranged in neat symmetrical rows on the upper floors. The facade is conceived as a rigid concrete grid, with endless rows of identical windows.

But that sense of order soon falls apart. The window jambs are painted a variety of colors -- red, orange, blue -- giving the facade an unexpected visual complexity. Large voids are cut out of the top of the structure, dividing it into three asymmetrical towers and allowing views through the building to the surrounding cityscape. Another void punches right through the building’s form, where broad, bleacher-like stairs lead up from the sidewalk to an outdoor sculpture garden.

The effect is mesmerizing -- as if the building were being broken apart by violent social forces.

The sense of communal energy dominates the first floor. A concrete staircase, for example, curls up through the lobby, leading to the dormitory floors. Just beyond the stairs, the performance space is set below ground, its tough, cavernous concrete interior a seemingly ideal venue for punk band performances or reunions of gray-bearded ‘60s militants.

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The dining hall, by contrast, is more serene, sheathed in enormous plate-glass windows that offer sweeping views of the street. A small, meditative space, covered in blue glass, is intended as a temporary escape from the academic pressures and social whirl of student life.

Once you reach the dormitory floors, a sense of order temporarily returns. The rooms line long, narrow corridors. Inside, the rooms are compact, well-proportioned spaces. The only unusual detail here is the grid of small mechanical windows -- each a mere 3-foot square -- which can be opened and closed using a series of cranks.

But that sense of being inside a well-oiled machine is interrupted by a series of communal lounges, whose bulging forms occasionally protrude out into the corridors. Three stories tall, the lounges’ undulating, organic forms carve up through the various floors. Each lounge contains an internal staircase so that they can be entered from various levels. The idea is to create a communal node, to break down the kind of segregation that is typical of dormitory floors.

The lounges evoke a series of obvious metaphors. They are sanctuaries for a budding counterculture, communal cells embedded in a matrix of social isolation. But they are also conceived as havens for creative exchange, set against the more rationally ordered world of the mind.

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That freedom, of course, has its limits. Security, for example, has become a major concern at college campuses, and the dining hall, despite Holl’s heated objections, had to be closed off to the street. Access to the rooftop terraces is also carefully controlled. (MIT has been plagued by a spate of much-publicized suicide attempts.)

But just such contradictions prevent Holl’s design from becoming a monument to a worn-out idealism. The building’s architectural tensions imply an ongoing struggle between the individual and the social, between freedom and conformity. Rather than resolve those tensions, Holl seeks to make them explicit. It is that fact that imbues the building with such a remarkable spirit of tolerance.


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