MIT v. Holl

A controversy heats up over one of the most celebrated buildings in recent memory.

When MIT’s Simmons Hall opened in 2002, almost all of the considerable press the building received mentioned that it was inspired by a bath sponge. But given recent revelations that the Steven Holl– designed 360-student dormitory ran tens of millions of dollars over budget, the sponge metaphor is turning out to be a more apt one than the university bargained for.

Rumors have been flying around campus about the final cost of the building, which students began moving into in fall 2002 (even though construction wasn’t yet complete). The budget numbers have been kept under wraps, so much so that nearly everyone involved with the construction of the building has been left to speculate about its price tag. But Victoria Sirianni, chief facilities officer of the MIT campus, tells Metropolis that the final cost for Simmons Hall—completed in 2003—is $92.5 million. Depending on whom you ask, that’s $30 to $50 million more than early estimates. Sirianni quickly adds that she doesn’t want to discuss it further because MIT is looking into bringing “claims against the architect.” Asked what that means, she declined to elaborate.

Holl seems unaware that MIT is considering taking such actions. When told about Sirianni’s comments, he says flatly, “That’s not true.” As for working with MIT on the building, he has nothing but positive things to say. “It was a great honor. Great architecture is important to making daily life more inspired. The potential to make a dormitory something exciting is hopeful work.”

One thing not in dispute about Simmons Hall is that the project is much more than a dorm. “Simmons is a bold, innovative design,” says John Essigmann, a professor at MIT who lives in the building with his family and is actively involved in organizing dorm social activities. “Some things work brilliantly. The entire first floor works well. You have a theater, small function rooms, a night café, and a local vendor has set up a specialty tea franchise. There’s a lot of energy. MIT should be congratulated for taking a risk with this building.”

But as with all bold architecture, there are plenty of divergent opinions about Simmons. And with such a high price tag, the debate has become more about functionality and appropriateness, and less about whether the building succeeds in making its conceptual statement.

“I think the intentions were good, but I don’t think it’s the most appropriate design for a dorm,” says Nikki Johnson, a Simmons Hall resident who is about to graduate with a degree in architecture and is responsible for giving public tours of the building. “It’s not sensitive to the individual resident. The public spaces are given precedence, and it compromises student rooms. There are awkward configurations and very little flexibility to set up rooms in a pleasant arrangement.”

What’s more, according to Johnson, decorative plaster is in constant need of repair and the high-design furniture is already falling apart. “The furniture is more appropriate for a fancy loft in Manhattan, not for college kids who want to pile twenty people on a couch and watch a football game,” she says. Even worse, the 5,500 “operable” windows that are the main component of the building’s porosity aren’t so easily operated. “You can’t really open and close the windows on a daily basis.”

In other words, the building reflects the bubble-economy period in which it was conceived: very high concept with lots of razzle-dazzle but short on practicality. It turns out building in a bubble economy doesn’t exactly keep the budget in check, either. According to Tim Bade, project architect for Holl, not only was the construction schedule extremely compressed, but so much was being built locally at the time that contractors didn’t need the work and would throw outrageous bids at the wall just to see if they stuck. “Our cost estimator suggested that if we postponed the construction until after the market slowed down we could get a much better price without changing the project at all,” Bade says. But MIT was determined to push forward with a very aggressive schedule.

While the back-and-forth between Holl and MIT will likely escalate, one well-placed source familiar with the project from its inception believes the building shouldn’t have been approved in the first place. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he blames MIT administrators who think they’re experts and never allowed the project to be properly vetted by professionals. “Senior administrators should not be in charge of building,” he says. “It’s a terrible combination of hubris and ignorance.”

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