Architectural Evolution and Reinvention

MIT’s campus architecture has always been a metaphor for the work happening inside. The original campus buildings were an expression of founder William Barton Rogers’s vision for contiguous spaces that promoted hands-on collaboration. Over the century, additions to the campus continued to express the MIT personality in the vocabulary of the era in which they were built. Today, buildings like the Stata Center boldly tell the world, “Leave status quo at the door.”

William Welles Bosworth

William Welles Bosworth was a well-respected Beaux-Arts architect with a distinguished portfolio, but his design aesthetic was just one of a number of factors favoring his selection as the architect of MIT’s new Cambridge campus. Bosworth was an alumnus (Class of 1889), for one thing, with a degree from MIT’s School of Architecture, one of the nation’s leading Beaux-Arts schools. He was the strong preference of John D. Rockefeller, a prospective donor to the new campus, for Bosworth had overseen a spectacular redesign of Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate in the Hudson River Valley.  

Also important, Bosworth was used to working for clients with strong personal convictions and John Ripley Freeman, an alumnus who had developed a rejected design for the new campus, still hovered over the project.  

Although Bosworth’s design of MIT’s Cambridge campus was considered a tremendous success, he never grew to prominence in the United States. The primary reason for this obscurity was that Rockefeller sent him to France, where he oversaw the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, Château de Fontainebleau, and other notable French landmarks. He was presented with the French Legion of Honor and the French Cross of the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, one of the few Americans ever to receive such honors. 


Stata Center

When the Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information, and Intelligence Sciences opened in 2004, it had cavernous shoes to fill. It replaced Building 20, the dilapidated but beloved makeshift innovation hothouse that had been hastily erected for war work in the 1940s. Frank Gehry’s 430,000 sq. ft. architectural confection is a fitting symbol for 21st-century invention with its post-modernist, deconstructionist façade—a collage of tilting towers, whimsical shapes, and unconventional materials. With flexible lab spaces, a childcare center, and deeply sustainable design elements, Stata is a think tank for a new era. Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic Robert Campbell declared it “a work of architecture that embodies serious thinking about how people live and work, and at the same time shouts the joy of invention.”


Baker House; photo: Above Summit with Christopher Harting

Baker House

Photo: Above Summit with Christopher Harting

Baker House

Finnish architect Alvar Aalto’s undulating brick residence hall along Memorial Drive is often admired as a mid-century masterpiece. Built in 1949, the six-story landmark is more than just a modernist gem. Aalto, a visiting professor in the MIT School of Architecture at the time he designed Baker House, created one of the most livable student residences on campus. His S-curve design gives 90% of the residents a room with a south-facing view of the Charles River, while a two-story dining hall topped by a moon garden occupies the north end of the building. Baker House has been home to MIT students who went on to become astronauts, Nobel laureates, tech giants—and the world tiddlywinks champion.



MIT Chapel; photo by Christopher Harting

The MIT Chapel

Photo: Christopher Harting


Simmons Hall; photo: AboveSummit with Christopher Harting

Simmons Hall

Photo: AboveSummit with Christopher Harting

A Statue of Minerva

William Welles Bosworth, architect of MIT’s Cambridge campus, believed that Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, was the ideal symbol for this new temple of learning. He proposed a three-story statue of the mythological muse as the pièce de résistance of his plans for MIT’s sweeping Great Court. He even had a sculptor lined up—Paul Manship, who went on to create the iconic Prometheus statue in Rockefeller Center.

Unfortunately, despite Bosworth’s repeated entreaties over the years, neither funding nor enthusiasm for the statue ever materialized. Julius Stratton, President of MIT from 1959 to 1966, was antipathetic to the statue and went so far as to pretend he knew nothing about its proposal, although the architect protested that it had always been central to the plan. In the end, Bosworth would never see Minerva rise in the Great Court. When he was well into his 90s, he expressed his disappointment in a letter to a friend, observing the importance of proper attire for a building of that prominence. Minerva, in his view, would have been the essential “necktie” of the design.


MIT Chapel & Kresge Auditorium

MIT Chapel and Kresge Auditorium were dedicated in 1955 in a ceremony capped off by Aaron Copland’s “Canticle of Freedom,” which was commissioned for the event. The two buildings, designed by the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, were audacious modernist statements in a time when most venerable college campuses were bastions of traditional forms. Their festive christening told the world that MIT was unashamedly focused on the future.

The two buildings—distinct from one another in purpose and design—would also add considerably to campus life. Saarinen’s chapel, a 33-ft-high cylinder topped with an aluminum bell tower and wrapped by a shallow moat, was intended as an island of serenity in the urban landscape. Its circular skylight sprayed a shower of stars over the nondenominational altar. If the chapel was delicate and introverted, Kresge Auditorium was bold and extroverted, wrapped in a welcoming wall of windows. Its triangular copper-sheathed roof touches ground at only three points. The absence of pillars means that every single seat in the 1,226-seat auditorium enjoys an unobstructed view.

MIT’s recent substantial renovation of the Chapel addressed everything from system upgrades and roof repairs to the careful renewal of signature elements such as the stained glass walls and the moat. A similar project is currently underway at Kresge, where a meticulous process is in place to complete essential improvements while preserving the auditorium’s landmark features and architectural integrity.


Simmons Hall

Discussing the design of Simmons Hall with architect Stephen Holl, the team from MIT asked for a building equal to the spirit and imagination of the students calling it home. Holl set about designing a residence hall that was uniquely MIT—in fact, a dormitory entirely distinct in the residence hall vernacular. With its post-modern façade punctuated by thousands of windows, Simmons Hall, which opened its doors in 2002, is often described as a “giant Lego.”

The ten-story dorm features 350 residences, a 125-seat theater, an electrical engineering lab and workshop, a night cafe, street-level dining, and a room full of colorful balls. Students call Simmons “the Sponge,” a term that Holl himself used to describe his concept of a porous structure that would soak up light. Perhaps what’s most successful about the building is its personality. Students who live in Simmons clearly feel the freedom and the camaraderie of a band of rebels and have even adopted their own anthem, “O Spongey Sponge,” sung to the tune of “O Canada.”


  • Susan Nasr, “Sponge Life,” Technology Review (January 8, 2007).