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About MIT's uneasy
relationship with aesthetics.

This discussion is a bit of a digression, as background information.

In recent decades, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been working to overcome the rather drab -- and many people would say, depressing -- appearance of its campus. The MIT of the 1960s and earlier, with its poured-concrete classroom buildings, its battleship-gray interior walls, and its location on filled land in an industrial neighborhood, was, after all, quite unlike the red-brick, ivy-covered, oak-paneled, tradition-soaked Campus at the Other End of Massachusetts Avenue.

As MIT has struggled to improve its appearance, its campus architecture has trended from the merely practical to the abstract-modern to the fantastic. The crowning example has to be the Stata Center, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry and with crumpled surfaces that make it look as if parts of it are falling down -- under construction in 2004 to house several academic departments.

How well the Stata Center will function as a building, rather than an aesthetic statement, remains to be seen, but over the years, MIT's ventures into the world of modern art, architecture and design have led to some practical problems, and to controversy. A couple of examples --

Built in the 1960s, MIT's Green Building is a 21-story skyscraper -- the only one on campus -- with entry doors inside an open passageway at its base. Wind, blocked by the mass of the building, led to such serious pressure differentials that the original swinging doors often could not be opened. Revolving doors had to be retrofitted.

Base of the Green Building -- note revolving doors.

 green.jpg (28279 bytes)

Transparent Horizon sculpture.
Note sharp point at lower left. 

nevelson2.jpg (21278 bytes)Then there's the 1975 outdoor sculpture by Louise Nevelson, "Transparent Horizon", with a protruding sharp point that could easily shish-kebab an inattentive runner or bicyclist, or gouge out the eye of a child. When the sculpture was installed, critics suggested that Nevelson had sadistic intentions. That is not a far-fetched observation.

All in all, these examples suggest the aesthetic preferences of people who spend a lot of time in the laboratory and lack street sense. But in that light, it is perplexing that many of MIT's artistic and architectural problems involve basic engineering gaffes. How is it that nobody used wind-tunnel testing of a scale model to refine the design of the Green Building before it was built? How is it that Nevelson got to install a hazard that flies in the face of basic building codes?

The point of the examples given here is to dispel the illusion that MIT, the seat of engineering rationality, always applies that to the design of its own campus. At least from time to time, the Philosopher King makes a public appearance without clothes.

One more such public appearance has been made with the Vassar Street project.

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