Twenty to Thirty Questions About MIT 2030
offered to the MIT community by the SAPiens (an assemblage of architects, planners, and historians in SA+P – the School of Architecture and Planning)
Reprinted from the MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXIV No. 2, November/December 2011.
MIT 2030 represents a bold beginning for a comprehensive plan that anticipates the renovation of MIT’s aging facilities and produces a map of its future research priorities and expansion needs. As emphasized by its original authors, MIT 2030 “is a process, not a plan.” A plan is now needed, one focused on the core educational priorities of the Institute rather than driven by real-estate development paradigms. We advocate that the administration take full advantage of the professional and research expertise of its faculty, and open the MIT 2030 process to its community for wide-ranging input and needed modification. We know that this more transparent, collaborative, and open engagement works: such a process contributed to a smooth financial response to the world-wide economic crisis, and that kind of engagement will help convert the MIT 2030 “process” to a visionary plan.
The following questions purposefully do not add up to a single opinion, but weave together suggestions and concerns based on our research in design and planning. We urge consideration of community and housing issues, quality of life, and integration with regional plans that are not evident in the current MIT 2030 [web.mit.edu/mit2030] and Kendall Square Initiative [www.kendallsquareinitiative.org] Websites. We also advocate for an open and transparent process in formulating a viable plan for MIT’s future.
MIT 2030 is insistently "not a plan, but a process," an appropriate demurral when research objectives, tools, and methods change as rapidly as they do on the edge of innovation. But not having a plan is not a long-term solution. How can the shifting projections of spatial needs become a flexible, achievable, visionary plan, with attention to views, perimeters, gateways, 24-hour life, and community?
The MIT 2030 documentation is driven primarily by programmatic imperatives and economic considerations that can be captured quantitatively; how can MIT 2030 better reflect qualities and consider broader spatial constructs that address life at the Institute? How can MIT 2030 both address and build community, making MIT an even more desirable place to be?
What does MIT want to be 20-30 years from now? What are the existing typologies of built and open space, and of landscape? How can we produce a long-range vision that does not simply see space as a “leftover” to be filled by more buildings, or raw material for real estate? MIT, of all places, should be intelligently adventurous.
Can the need for housing in Cambridge be incorporated into MIT 2030, in partnership with the state and city, to foster a dense residential development on the peripheries of MIT property? This would create a more diverse environment, supporting shops, eating places and a 24-hour life, which adding only academic space and more non-MIT research facilities cannot provide.
Image projection is one of MIT’s major issues, which MIT 2030 could address. How can our physical structures and informational infrastructures better communicate the sense of the MIT spirit to our students, our local community, and the world? Can we partner with the City of Cambridge in its current study of Central Square, to address the fact that the approach to MIT along Mass. Ave. (from Lafayette Square) is the least successful part of this major thoroughfare?
The MIT 2030 flyover reflects MIT’s historical orientation toward the Charles River. Can we turn 180 degrees and re-conceptualize MIT's orientation? How might its 21st century development engage with the City of Cambridge, including our neighbors in public housing as well as commercial firms? Can we begin to clarify the difference between the historic core and the West side, between edges such as Memorial Drive or spines such as Vassar Street? Which areas/places are those of lively interaction and which are for nature and tranquility? How does technology and innovative construction factor into the open space and landscape design?
Where is design in the MIT 2030 plan? It seems that design is still considered a decoration to be applied in the final stages of individual buildings. By contrast, architects see design as a fundamental component of large-scale conceptualization: urban planning, relations to energy systems, coordination of green integument, and instigations of lasting cultural change. A bias for design would help the MIT 2030 plan become less bureaucratic and more visionary.
Should we accept MIT 2030's conception of the Institute as a series of separate buildings, or use the planning process to recall the genius of Bosworth's original and highly flexible idea? The original 1913 designs envisioned a grand interconnected structure conceived in opposition to the idea of the normative college campus (a stretch of land populated by independent buildings with separate functions). MIT's 1913 facility, the largest academic structure in the world when it was built, remained highly adaptive and flexible for half a century. Today's Biomedical labs are vastly different from Humanities buildings, but can the original flexibility be recaptured? As buildings become more and more specialized they will become more self-limiting.
Almost every building on campus is centered in on itself, and on its own internal corridors. How can we improve larger-scale continuities across the campus, across building lobbies, and courtyards? (Such continuities can concern themselves with materials, vegetation, rainwater management, etc.) The purpose would be to think of the Institute as a set of dynamic functions and integrated spaces rather than fragmented ones, an integration that will not produce itself automatically.
MIT encompasses both practical and symbolic spaces – how will MIT 2030 think through both of these imperatives? Unlike the traditional university, MIT has many courts (not a "quad") and many spaces that exist at an unprecedented scale. This scale often dwarfs existing buildings –as in the West campus area bounded by Saarinen, Aalto, and Holl structures (with the dorms stretching beyond to Sidney Street, etc.) Can we reconfigure the sport fields to integrate the structures that surround their chain link perimeter into a unified sub-campus environment, or even consume some of their space for social activity buildings? How can this otherwise featureless domain-in-between be given identity and symbolic meaning?
Will the current plan accommodate the tactical choices of the last five decades, in which buildings have been put here or there, each dedicated to a specific purpose (and each in a completely different design language)? Or, since specific purposes and even interdisciplinary groupings are doomed to become obsolete, can we use MIT 2030 to urge a rethinking of the building as a unit? The recently completed North Court is a promising beginning – can it be improved from a simple crossing of walkways and be reconceived as a quad conceptually enhancing Killian Court?
What would happen if we could imagine the MIT environment as a series of outside spaces reconfigured to link and integrate the separated buildings once again? Perhaps in some remedial way the space around and behind the Calder could be redesigned so that the Killian, McDermott, and North Courts would constitute an inner spine that then could get linked to the new sites to the north. One thinks of Olmsted’s famous conception of an “emerald necklace” for Boston. Adding a few trees here and there to the front of buildings is not enough; we need to understand how public space knits life, work, and learning together as interrelated activities. We can begin by valuing, enhancing, and structuring the interstitial public spaces that we have.
How might the “campus landscape” be creatively re-envisioned as an “urban ecosystem?” The MIT 2030 profile features an emergent Great Circle around the North Court with a strong emphasis on biological and allied sciences. How might this area of campus, and other areas, become “ecological laboratories” where experimentation extends beyond the walls of the buildings? The bioswale behind Stata might be a beginning, but how might MIT move toward dramatic instrumentation and experimentation in the campus as a living, learning laboratory?
The CSX railway corridor, which defines MIT’s northern border, is both a barrier and a potential resource. How can the MIT property on the other side of the rail lines be woven into the rest of the campus, particularly for pedestrians? There is presently no access to those areas after Mass. Ave., yet there are gaps in the wall defined by Metropolitan Storage, West Garage, etc. MIT owns the air rights some eight meters above the rail corridor, which can yield a very large volume of floor space for campus and other expansion (as in the example of the Brain and Cognitive Science building) and change the form of both the campus and Massachusetts Avenue.
In a related question, how can the traditionally internal focus of MIT buildings and the "transportation" conception of the outdoor spaces (crosswalks, sidewalks, asphalt) be radically rethought? How can the planning process encourage the proliferation of external openings, buffer zones, and vital small businesses (cafes, galleries, bookstores) or even non-governmental and international organizations and not-for-profits that will mesh public and university spaces, contributing to the life of our wider community?
What can we do to integrate additional programs into the campus, in order to enliven its spaces when there are no classes or in the evening, and in doing so increase a sense of liveliness, safety, and security? Can spaces and zones for public/ university partnerships be incorporated into the plan? Can MIT partner with the City or non-profit cultural groups to ensure that its peripheries and surrounding community areas become green, well-lit, and comfortable to be in at all hours?
MIT is neither a fully urban university nor a traditional campus built on the monastery model –how can its status as a sprawling institution with urban edges be leveraged to bring "contaminant urbanity" within reach of students and faculty? A different kind of investment and urban vision, not based on current real estate models, will be needed if MIT is to enable more than a food court culture. (The vibrant restaurants that have grown up in the non-MIT-owned stretch of Main Street offer a living laboratory for this question to be tested.)
Can the MIT 2030 process serve to reopen questions with Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the federal government about the proposed Boston inner urban ring public transportation corridor (which would cross the river at the BU Bridge and connect the Green and Red Lines)? The CSX rail corridor (referenced above) is crucial to this circular route, and MIT must keep on advocating for this metropolitan expansion as part of its long-term plans. Unlike Harvard but more like Tufts, MIT has at least two main access points: Mass. Ave. and the Kendall "T." Can MIT 2030 aggressively conceptualize the CSX rail corridor in order to rethink and reinvent these urban nodes?
Why are we not conceiving an internal circulation system for our increasingly sprawling campus, allowing the members of the community to traverse it more quickly? Can we investigate moving sidewalks? Shared bicycles? An internal taxi system with small electric cars in dedicated lanes across the courtyards? The Tech Shuttle does not seem to be serving these needs.
The retrofitting of our existing building stock will be a major challenge in order to meet our own evolving sustainability standards. Can the MIT 2030 plan to cost, design, and sequence this be dynamically connected to the substantial cutting edge research being produced by our urbanists, engineers, and building technologists around questions of sustainability?
MIT has the top-ranked Urban Studies Program in the world; can this research capacity be better utilized for the conversion of MIT 2030 to a plan? How can MIT use the assets of its faculty and students to drive a more deliberative development process that avoids the classic town/gown problems? Is it time to have a strong urban designer come in, to give MIT 2030 a compelling visual narrative?
The challenge of improving the interface between the campus and the surrounding community once seemed to fall within the purview of the MIT Executive Vice President for the physical plant (who was given oversight of MIT real estate holdings). Is this charge now part of new EVP Israel Ruiz's portfolio? Can the process for “moving to a plan” be clarified along with this new leadership? What has happened to the previous planning proposals (from current faculty such as Dennis Frenchman to outside architect Robert Venturi)? Can these proposals be shared with the community and opened to campus-wide debate and discussion?
Can the current plans for Kendall Square be reopened in light of MIT 2030? This major portal to the Institute sets up much bigger stakes than can be addressed by a few banners and signs. Kendall can be a laboratory for all the questions we have been asking: How can the Institute encourage a more porous and yeasty urban edge? How can MIT partner with the city to produce a destination that will allow students and faculty to engage with the community? How can we produce the circumstances for MIT culture (art, experiment, performance, science) to interface with small-scale entrepreneurial urbanity (coffeehouses, performance spaces, the Kendall Cinema)?
The Kendall Square plan as it stands does present a vision for this important gateway to the MIT campus. Can this plan be reconfigured to incorporate more than real estate and commercialism in its brief? A revised plan for Kendall Square should view architectural design as a tool that transforms space and environments through unprecedented ideas. We note that the following words are missing from the current plan:
How can the Kendall plan better confront the civic, public, and iconic missions of materializing the ambitions of a global institution?
Both Kendall and MIT 2030 suggest a process driven by development rather than well-informed planning; the model anticipates future revenues based on an unending stream of real estate partners. How can MIT better utilize its collective intelligence (economic and urbanist)? Planners can think through and visualize different economic contingencies, they can do time models based on good data already in hand for the campus, city, region, and nation. Time taken now will save time wasted later, if these data can be tapped.
Discussions about an integrated campus life have long included debates about faculty housing (especially for young faculty), about daycare, about schools (possibly associated with MIT like the BU Academy), a viable faculty club, and so forth. How can MIT 2030 accommodate a vision for housing related to MIT? Without such a vision we risk being surrounded by high-end condominiums, service industries, and office space, with the campus a factory that produces workers for the companies around it.
*Caroline A. Jones, a Professor in the Department of Architecture, solicited a range of views from a collective called here the SAPiens: School of Architecture and Planning faculty Stanford Anderson, Julian Beinart, Eran Ben-Joseph, Alexander D'Hooghe, John Fernandez, Dennis Frenchman, David Hodes Friedman, Amy K. Glasmeier, Mark Jarzombek, Nasser Rabbat, Bish Sanyal, Nader Tehrani, Gediminas Urbonas, and Lawrence Vale.