massachusetts institute of technology

MIT 1990-2004: The Vest Years
Creating a Campus of Magnetic Destinations Creating a Campus of Magnetic Destinations

When we chose Frank Gehry to design the Ray and Maria Stata Center for Computer, Information and Intelligence Sciences, many saw the step as bold, risky, and uncharacteristic of an institution with a deep engineering culture and a campus that was a temple of practicality. How did this come about?

With crucial guidance from Bill Mitchell, dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, a committee of electrical engineering and computer science faculty, MIT planners, and key Department of Facilities Department leaders considered proposals from many outstanding architects. They finally narrowed the choice to two. Californian Frank Gehry was clearly the more adventurous. In a meeting, I asked each committee member to state his or her preference and reasoning. Precisely half favored Gehry. Half favored the other firm. The usual consensus was nowhere to be found. I stood at the crossroads. I had to make the decision.

My conclusion, after a lot of soul-searching, was that MIT should take a huge step into a very different world of architecture. It was a risk, but one consistent with the boldness in style and scale of the great pillared buildings that established the campus on the swampy banks of the Charles River in the early 19th century. I tested the decision in a conversation around the coffee table in my office with Bill Dickson, our senior vice president at the time, and a man of strong pragmatism and wisdom. If I could get Bill to agree with the bold move of hiring Frank Gehry, I would know we were doing the right thing. After some discussion, he not only agreed, but reminded me that MIT had trod this road before: Our beautiful, elegant Kresge Auditorium and MIT Chapel, both designed by Eero Saarinen, were considered radical and even alarming when they were built in 1953.

Subsequent decisions about architects and architecture seemed to flow naturally. Innovative practitioners would cumulatively transform the MIT campus. We chose Steven Holl to design Simmons Hall; Kevin Roche, the Zesiger Center; Charles Correa Associates and Goody Clancey & Associates, the brain and cognitive sciences project; and Fumihiko Maki, the new Media Arts and Sciences building.

Bold? Perhaps. Striking, certainly. And because MIT is MIT, when you look inside, these buildings had better be well organized, functional, efficient, adaptable, and make good use of materials. They had better work. Together, they are a perfect expression of MIT’s long-standing appetite for the most challenging new ideas in every field.

Essays by Charles M. Vest