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Imagining MIT: Designing a Campus for the Twenty-First Century

by William J. Mitchell
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007
152 pp., illus. 83 b/w, 125 col. Trade, 15.95/$24.95
ISBN:13: 978-0-262-13479-8, ISBN:10: 0-262-13479-9.

Reviewed by Dr Eugenia Fratzeskou,
3 Sinclair Gardens,
West Kensington,
London W14 0AU,


Mitchell presents an in-depth, critical account not only of the outcomes but also of the complex processes, debates, ideologies and aims of the highly ambitious MIT building programme during the 1990s and 2000s. The outcomes of this programme are Kevin Roche’s Zesiger Sports & Fitness Center, Steven Holl’s Simmons Hall, Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, Charles Correa's Brain & Cognitive Sciences Complex, and Fumihiko Maki’s unrealised design for the Media Laboratory. Mitchell also introduces the context of such dynamic architectural growth through methodically presenting the evolving and highly complex discourses on the notion of the "American Campus" (p. 2) since the 1800s and the overall development of the MIT campus since the early 1900s.

Imagining MIT is highly recommended to those interested in gaining invaluable insights into the history and vision of MIT, the real-time planning and management of university campuses, the conceptual and cultural frameworks of research universities’ growth, architectural creation and construction, innovation, meaning and site-specificity in architecture.

Mitchell succeeds in presenting an in-depth, behind-the-scenes review of the MIT building programme, as he has served as the A.W.Dreyfoos Professor of Architecture, Media Arts & Sciences and the architectural adviser to MIT president Charles Vest (who has written the "Afterword" to Imagining MIT and has researched the development of the US research universities). Mitchell reveals the complexity of the multi-layered arguments and realities that drive the MIT building programme of the 1990s and 2000s. He exposes the productive tensions and the non-linear processes of realising the programme, the opportunities, risks, cultural concerns, unsettling re-evaluation of strategies and priorities, the responses to the programme by the architects, governors, sponsors, academic staff, students and the public. The purpose of the programme has been the invention of new architectural types for representing the core values of MIT. These values and priorities include MIT’s internationally acclaimed excellence and leadership of innovative research, enhancing the sense of community among students and staff (as contrasted to distant learning), and supporting the emerging types of research across information technology, brain and cognitive sciences, engineering, communication, architecture, design and art. Important changes to the MIT campus have been introduced by the modernist architects Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen, through their much-debated, anti-pragmatic and anti-classical designs for "inverting" the traditional types of campuses (p. 29), and by Gehry’s and Holl’s innovative designs that reflect the changing values of MIT in relation to emerging research and cultural conditions and the 1990s growth of information technology. Most importantly, Mitchell stresses the advantages of "real-time planning strategies" as the "art of the not obviously possible" (p. 121) which has enabled the realisation of the MIT’s building programme. "Real-time planning" supports a " precarious balance of co-operation and conflict" (p. 122) necessary for creatively supporting MIT’s current & future growth, through taking advantage of emerging conditions, enabling "architectural distinction" (p. 120), and new notions of site-specificity through responding to the existing buildings and site.

Mitchell thoroughly explains the ways in which a new type of architecture is created for the MIT’s rapidly expanding and decentralised campus through destabilising the assumptions on campus typologies. Each architect has demonstrated an active, original and imaginative contribution to the programme through using the latest technology. Rigorous consultation with staff and students has been essential for realising this programme, as can be seen in Gehry’s project. The resulting buildings have ambiguous and permeable boundaries with adjustable spaces that may be transformed by their occupants. Social spaces are increased, unexpected encounters with researchers and the public are encouraged for making research visible and fostering new collaborations. The MIT Media Lab is created primarily for "complementing" the specialised research of MIT (p. 102) through enabling cross-disciplinary research that involves visual art and other creative disciplines, and expanding the development of successful existing research areas. Mitchell’s review of the Media Lab building project is particularly revealing of the rapidly changing conditions and unpredictable adjustments to the MIT building programme and research strategy, sponsorships, and the Media Lab’s relationship to the other MIT departments.

Mitchell's significant expertise in urbanism, city-building, visualisation, digital technology and methods for architecture, enables an advanced and comprehensive review not only of the architectural outcomes of the MIT building programme but also of the relationship between contemporary architectural tools and methods to idea development, architectural creation and construction. Mitchell’s argument is well-supported by a rich variety of high-quality illustrations and rare archival material including images of the MIT campus since 1910, Aalto’s telegram explaining his rationale, interview extracts, site-plans, diagrams, massing, shadow and structural studies, sketches and models.



Updated 1st August 2007

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