In a Word…

Steven Holl picks one, and his Simmons Hall pays the price.

What if designing a building were as easy as finding the right word? An architect would meditate on a given program, weigh its opportunities and dilemmas, consult, fret, doodle, until—presto—out of the vapors of artistic enigma it comes: the magic word. I remember from architecture school a certain class of studio critics who would instruct their students in this abracadabra principle, asking them to make something as multifarious as public housing or a ferry terminal cleave to some single-minded verbal cue: destiny, capture, fusion, delight, whatever. As a simplifying classroom exercise, it had some merit. But trendy reductions should be left in school; they certainly don’t bring much to more complicated settings. Let’s generously assume that mandated student stutters would in time develop to fluent sentences of construction, then, perhaps by graduation, to whole paragraphs of lucid built language, and on to vignettes and short stories in the architects’ long apprenticeship, novellas and books once their names were on the door. From our stars we should expect whole libraries of perfect prose.

The star in question here is Steven Holl. The building in question is his stammering Simmons Hall—a ten-story, 350-bed dormitory with all the trimmings, completed last fall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And the word in question, the word that bred the building, that drove and buoyed its design, that concatenated through its siting and structure, its lounges and lintels, the all-powerful term of terms that conjured its high fancies and ultimately brought it low, is, per Mr. Holl, porosity.

Porosity? The state of being porous, full of holes, of inviting passage, one imagines, or of drawing things in and retaining them even, like a sponge. A fine metaphor for any dormitory, given as they are to multiple openings and cavities within. But Holl was not content with metaphor; he pursued the reification of porosity as an end in itself.

On campus to introduce his building last October, Holl was full of faith in his chosen term. He recounted how alone among the architects considered he had thrown out the master plan, a relic of the 1980s that called for a wall of buildings along the northern perimeter of the institute grounds, where Simmons Hall now sits, and it is easy to see why. That end of campus presents itself as a series of barriers parallel to the Charles. On a line from the river, there is Memorial Drive, a wide boulevard; a row of dormitories (including Alvar Aalto’s wonderful Baker House); a long field; rod-straight Vassar Street; then the narrow strip that is the site for Simmons and the dorms that will follow, set against an unbreachable barricade of railroad tracks. Across the tracks, beyond the campus, there is a wide swath of low industrial buildings before Cambridge proper picks up again in block after block of repeating triple-deckers. Against this formidable grain, Holl argued for countervailing flow, presenting Simmons as the first of a great dotted line of pore-rich structures.

Speaking that same day last fall, William Mitchell, the dean of MIT’s architecture school, explained that “one of the things this school does is to make enormous intellectual bets on emerging areas.” In that spirit the building committee bought Holl’s porous argument. But they bet on the wrong horse. The architect might have chosen other words—contrivance, hurdle, pickle—to better describe the conditions he created for himself by zagging out in such a random direction from the gate and by sticking with that line, blindered, to the finish. Holl’s magic word yielded nothing but a gestural planning notion, a slew of technical headaches, and some pretty bleak spaces.

On the ground the guiding concept has left no real trace; there is no connection made across the field or over the tracks, visual or otherwise. Instead the idea that began as a compellingly dissenting site analysis became yet another hopeful, fruitless crutch for novel form. The 385-foot-long building does open up in that storied transverse axis, but only in two ragged notches cut down a few stories from the top; a stair through the hole in the center of the block, which one might assume to be a key portal to the beyond, is cut by a glazed passage and stopped dead by a Dan Graham installation before it even gets near the severing tracks.

The functional porosity that Holl claims for his building is an empty fiction. But, as decoration—expensive decoration—“porosity” has left its mark all over. Evoking the sponge as a guiding aesthetic, Holl conceived the building’s elevations as matrices of two-foot-square windows—architecture’s ready-made pores. This led in turn to a great structural game, gamely handled by Holl’s able, fabled, enabling engineer, Guy Nordenson. To build Simmons required all manner of extracurricular, computer-aided ingenuity: calculating a unique rat’s nest of rebar for each prefab concrete panel; devising a novel system to integrate that structure, dubbed PerfCon, with the building’s poured-in-place floors; and on, and on. The result is scandalously sloppy, but it stands. Still, hold your applause; that those problems were solved should invite no more praise than we would give a man who piles his molehill into a mountain and then conquers the summit.

A dormitory is not a word or a game or a consequence-free vehicle for a quirky process and its snappy rhetoric. It is at root a collection of bedrooms; it should be more but it can’t be less. At Simmons these are a mixed bag. The modular plywood furniture from Holl’s office (shot through with ornamental holes) is very nice, but the incessant grid of the windows—floor to ceiling, nine per room—is a big price for the residents to pay for a transient stranger’s high concept. Yes, the windows are operable, and, yes, their exaggerated, structurally necessary depth lends itself to cutting the sun’s glare. But the mock-porous grid gives the bedrooms a fatal jailhouse air. Accommodation, haven, home—those words are hopelessly insipid and not the least bit cool, but unspoken they might have served, among other values conjured and realities squarely met, as guides to help an open-minded architect shape an inclusive process that could result in a design—at that site, at this time—that might have been, in a word, good.

Or, better, skip them all. A word, however resonant, marks a point in a single dimension. It is less than a gesture, not quite an idea, at most a goosed memory and the half-mood it bears. In the greater scheme of things, not much. And not nearly enough to make sense of a building’s mad complexities. Architecture is blessed and cursed with more dimensions than its greats know what to do with: the three of sensible space, the celebrated fourth of travel through it; and others, ineffable, beyond—the fifth of utility, say, the seventh of happy accident, the ominous eleventh. Why bind something as rich as a building to the impoverished raster-scan of language? What word can generate space? What word can justify it?

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