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Holl picks holes in masonry tradition

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Steven Holl's Simmons Hall dormitory at MIT marks a return to Boston's masonry tradition, but with a radical approach that both celebrates and denies the material properties of the concrete

There is no city in the United States that has as many distinguished concrete buildings as the Boston suburb of Cambridge:

Jose Luis Sert's Peabody Terrace students' dormitory, John Andrews' Gund Hall, James Stirling's Fogg Museum extension, not to mention Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and scores of lesser structures by Sert, Cambridge Associates, Walter Gropius and The Architects Collaborative.

In fact, Boston is a masonry city. While the majority of the region's housing stock is wood construction, its most significant commercial and industrial buildings are red brick and, increasingly in the 20th century, concrete. A masonry tour would begin at its extraordinary waterfront granite wharf buildings and nearby Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, and proceed to Charles Bullfinch's Massachusetts State Capital and the nearby blocks of Beacon Hill brick homes. The industrial quarter of the city has scores of outstanding 19th-century Victorian red-brick warehouses and factories. It is also the home of H H Richardson's brownstone Trinity church and brick Sever Hall at Harvard, and Kallman and McKinnell's Brutalist concrete megastructure, the Boston City Government Center.

Sadly, recent masonry construction in the region seems only to consist of scores of ersatz PostModern commercial towers in Boston's city centre, Cambridge's Kendall Square and the hi-tech research corridor known as Route 128. These buildings aim for instant respectability and, given Boston's masonry tradition, these mostly steel high rises are faced in brick and stone in order to appear as if they have been there forever.

It has been many years since Cambridge has seen a significant contemporary masonry building.

However, a new concrete structure has recently appeared in the city that intends to stand out from this depressing recent tradition. But how does it compare to other splendid masonry structures in Cambridge?

The building - Simmons Hall by the New York architect Steven Holl - is a student dormitory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), just a few blocks from masonry landmarks The Baker House Dorm by Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen's cylindrical chapel. It is a long narrow ocean liner of a building that seems moored between a major traffic corridor with small industrial buildings and railroad tracks. In fact, the location is a rapidly gentrifying industrial area and Holl's building is meant to address the area's future as a district of residential towers.

The dormitory's massing resembles two Pac-Man figures set head to head, or irregular Lego or puzzle pieces. Its cut-out shape relieves the 116m length of the structure, allows it to have a series of open terraces and creates inserts for its major public sections like the entrance and street-side cafeteria. This shape, according to Holl, is 'porous and permeable' and primarily meant to offer view corridors through the structure to the buildings behind it and to the distant Boston skyline and Charles River.

However, this sounds like hyperbole to justify and support its unorthodox urban profile. It is still, after all, a large building, so it is unclear how residents behind the structure will be able to see through its form to the distant skyline and river. But porosity and permeability and allusions to biology seem to be Holl's preferred intellectual rationale for the dorm and he strives for it at every design turn.

The exterior of Simmons Hall resembles a concrete honeycomb or, as I was told by an MIT student, a 'computer punch card' (this building seems to lend itself to unending metaphors and similes) with 5,538 square cut-outs that function less as windows than as light openings on its perimeter walls. These 58cm square cut-outs make the building, if viewed from a distance, appear 30 floors in height. However, each floor has three cut-outs from floor to ceiling and the building is only 10 storeys in height. It is scaleless in the manner of Aldo Rossi's brilliant red mausoleum in Modena that rises like a skyscraper from a distance, but has only four storeys. Like the Modena toy tower, Simmons' wall is thick masonry with deep incised cutouts that function as light portals.

In Rossi's structure, the openings are not glazed but open portals, and are meant to make the mausoleum appear tall and bring light into a contemplative volume. But Simmons is a residence and in its public gathering spaces the glazed openings provide a sense of protection and a dramatic wall of regularly patterned light. But looking out of the portals seems unnatural and requires one to walk up to them purposefully to peer out. The small student dormitory rooms each have six portals, ie three cut-outs high and three across. Perhaps MIT students are too engrossed in their studies to peer out of a window, but I cannot imagine that these openings are popular with those who inhabit the building.

The strength of Simmons Hall as architecture is the manner in which the concrete allows it to become a carved irregular structure with tactile roughwalled interior spaces. However, Holl seems unwilling to allow the concrete to carry the day and constantly tones down the material to soften its rough and direct surfaces.

The exterior wall, for example, is an innovative precast exoskeleton of concrete panels, but is clad in soft-tone sanded aluminum.

Many of the square cut-outs have yellow, red and blue paint applied to their jambs, and this creates waves of primary colours spread across the facade if viewed from an oblique angle on the street.

This patterning is taken directly from structural engineer Guy Nordenson's stress drawings for Simmons, which Holl simply applies to the building. It is a clever idea to show the structural stresses, but it is also another way in which the building's concrete is tempered - or even covered up - with another material.

The tradition of fearing concrete's hard-edged directness goes back to at least 1902 and Auguste Perret's rue Franklin apartments, which are faced with terracotta. Le Corbusier also often added colour to his concrete structures. Simmons succeeds when Holl allows the material to be pure masonry construction.

Its entranceway, reception space, undulating staircase and central ground-floor passageway all have walls of beautifully exposed concrete, with textured surfaces left by the concrete's wooden forms.

It is inexplicable that, with all the fine concrete structures in the area, Holl nevertheless seems to have thought that concrete is too harsh a material.

The MIT building's attempts to mediate concrete's materiality have much in common with Modern Scandinavian architecture's attempt to humanise the style of the 'Neue Sachlichkeit'.

The suspended ceilings in the building, for example, are panels of birch plywood with Holl's obligatory small punctured 'porous' holes.

Furthermore, the most successful spaces are those that could only happen with concrete as a material. The most impressive are the six multi-storey group lounges that slice up, across and through, the standard residential floors. These flowing spaces, made of thin poured concrete, suggest Bilbao crossed with la Tourette and cut diagonally through the building's walls and floors, often spilling into the hallways. They are expressed on the facade as large irregular openings that Holl labels 'amoebic', but which look for all the world like gaps in Swiss cheese. They are the building's most dramatic spaces and give what would be a fairly standard dormitory a bit of fashionable 'blob' architectural drama and irregular spatial form.

The building's formal entranceway is one of Simmons' most dramatic and certainly welcoming spaces. A wide opening covers dramatic yet gentle steps from the sidewalk through to the concrete lobby and then to a glazed terrace, with a fantastic Dan Graham reflective glass pavilion Yin Yang. Unfortunately, this is not really the true entrance (which is on the building's corner), and is used only for formal occasions and the steps for lounging on warm days. It suggests a serious lack of planning and thought on Holl's part if the major entrance is used only as seating in the spring. It is perhaps the most apt metaphor for this building of great architectural ambition and intention but failed thought and planning.

The beautiful wood patterns left by the forms are, I was told, something that did not come easily for the company that constructed the building. Despite Boston's masonry and Modernist concrete tradition, the company could not find enough experts in concrete formwork to complete the structure. It had to bring older form makers out of retirement to work on the structure, but also, one hopes, to train another generation of builders.

The building, it should be noted, is advertised as being 'naturally' air conditioned because its heavy concrete walls act as a brisesoleil. However, I visited in August and, while it was not unbearably hot, the brise-soleil did little to dampen New England's legendary humidity. Fortunately, there are few students in the building in summer when heat and humidity envelop the city.

Simmons Hall is a serious piece of architecture that is refreshing in the somewhat stuffy atmosphere of recent academic buildings and the blocks of Post-Modern dreck that scar all American cities.

Furthermore, the building's unstated but obvious references to Corb's Unités mean that Holl consciously attempts to give the structure all the requirements of a small city. Students whose lives are defined by lack of time and money can find all manner of urban amenities within the building: compelling communal space, public art, seductive common spaces, a sidewalk cafeteria, a meditation room and real architecture. But in the end, the building tries a little too hard to be serious architecture. One wishes Simmons Hall would be more straightforward and give us fewer biological allusions and unusable light portals. People want windows!

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