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Kinetic monolith: Steven Holl's student residences at MIT are contained in a giant monolithic block that is dramatically perforated and disrupted.

An interplay of opposites has been characteristic of Steven Holl's architecture since his emergence on the New York design scene now a quarter of a century ago. Balancing or intermingling solid and void, opaque and transparent, the rational and the intuitive, Holl has aimed to build buildings with memorable plastic sensibility. For Simmons Hall, the new undergraduate dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Holl infects a perforated, monolithic box with contained spaces that curve and unfold towards natural light.

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MIT's campus overlooks the broad Charles River and eclectic skyline of Downtown Boston. Alvar Aalto's Baker Hall (1949) takes advantage of its riverside location by gently zigzagging such that student rooms have optimal views up- and downriver. Today MIT is busy adding new buildings by Kevin Roche & John Dinkeloo (recently completed), Frank Gehry (inaugurated in May), Charles Correa (under construction) and a large, promising extension to its famed Media Lab by Fumihiko Maki (awaiting final approval).

Holl's student residence has a programme similar to Aalto's but is situated back from the river and west of the central campus; it stands tall and thin to stake an unmistakable presence in this less dense and so far less designed tract of MIT. The facades of Simmons Hall appear as flush blades of aluminium eaten into by several large cuts--in silhouette, it interacts with the sky behind, not unlike a yin-yang figure ground character or sculptures by Eduardo Chillida. At a radically different scale, it is punctured by small, square and deep apertures that illuminate the interior without revealing--at least in daylight--each room's exact position or size. Where gable portions are eroded, upper sections of the building project forward dramatically.

As Holl has long been interested in cognition and architectural legibility. Simmons Hall might be understood as both a three-dimensional mask and a giant inhabited truss. Its entrance, to the northeast on Vassar Avenue, is a re-entrant corner. Into this cubic void, subsidiary planes of glass are placed so that the immediate lobby reads as a transparent box inside a larger, virtual box implied by two sidewalls and the overhanging soffit. These sidewalls are lined in perforated aluminium sheets through which a coloured inner skin is perceptible. The perforated sheets reappear both outside in the jambs of terraces cut into the building and inside as stylish balustrades. As at Kiasma, in Helsinki (AR August 1998), Holl is concerned with the tactile and figural qualities of building components and with fittings such as the scroll-like metal door handles and translucent light sconces, their delicacy suggestive of ice shards.

The foyer reveals the dormitory's ostensibly contradictory--or converse--ambitions. A long corridor acts as a horizontal spine connecting many small alcoves and hallways while an exposed concrete volume punctures this rectilinear framework as an enigmatic vertical intervention. Inside this volume, the interior descends (a fabricated cave?) to accommodate a performance and screening room for most of Simmons Hall's 350 residents. In the foyer, a freeform concrete stair floats upward leading to the first floor. There, daylight acts as a natural attractor to a double-height canteen at the far end of the corridor. Holl's play of amorphous and orthogonal, descending and ascending, triggers a reading of the entire structure as a set of caged volumes tethered to the spinal corridor and accessed alternatively from lower and upper internal levels.

The diagram of Simmons Hall, and its physical exploration, is as if Le Corbusier's economic section of stacked maisonettes for his Unites d'Habitation has mutated with surprisingly spatial, almost surreal incidental volumes. The student rooms, typically paired about small threshold spaces and shared bathrooms, are aligned between floor slabs to either side of the central corridor--a new sort of internal street--whereas the multi-height communal rooms punch through this straitjacket, morphing vertically--in the case of upper rooms--towards fantastical roof lights clear to the sky. These vertical volumes and the several prismatic cuts into the building's outer envelope suggest a reading of the dormitory less as a single parallelepiped and more as an array of conjoined towers. Holl seems to thrive on such conundra.

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The basic bedroom unit is found behind an external wall containing nine windows (three across, three down) ruled or separated by two vertical and two horizontal concrete beams. The facade of Simmons Hall is formed in fact from prefabricated, structural modules, typically one per room, lifted into place by crane and working to achieve stability in consort with the floor slabs. The aluminium panels visible to the outside world are a protective and modular layer placed sufficiently forward, the architects claim, of openable windows to screen out the glare of the summer sun. Normally one side panel or jamb, and perhaps the soffit, is coded in strong solid colours--blue, green, yellow, orange, and red--to create a kinetic, Op-Art effect perpendicular to the static, outermost plane.

In one of those conflations popular with educational institutions and certain architects alike, this spectrum approximately represents the thickness of reinforcement concealed behind the aluminium panels (blue indicating the less reinforced or stress-prone sections). Again a kind of contemporary but flexible architecture parlante. On a bright winter's day, these colours also reflect off opposite jambs to add pastels into the overall mix of the architecture's palette.

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At Simmons Hall, Holl's interest in opposites and in programmatic unorthodoxy has found an echo in his clients' desire to experiment with the representation of a students' residence (it is a kind of 'anchor tenant' in this developing zone of the campus) and with internal communal spaces. Rather than some deadly hermetic, double-loaded corridor plan, MIT seems to understand the intent of Holl's section to allow for multiple meeting and study spaces--some with media stations, others with kitchenettes. Setting the special or particular or quirky against the normative, behind its mask Simmons Hall is a ludic habitat not only for the adventurous, but also for those willing to engage with and participate in this not easy architecture.

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Article Details
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Author:Ryan, Raymund
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:1016
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