Back to School

Originally published in , January 2000

Preservation. In 1959, a decade after Alvar Aalto’s Baker House opened on the MIT campus, Steen Eiler Rasmussen wrote enthusiastically of it in his landmark book, Experiencing Architecture. ”The entire design is based on the functions of the building… For these young people Aalto has created a building which entirely avoids the stereotyped rooms and anthill atmosphere of old-fashioned dormitories, and the students love it.” Famous for its wavy south façade and curious north-façade stair, Baker House is better known at MIT for the interactive life it promotes among students. “The great idea behind Baker House is sociability,” says undergraduate dean Rosiland Williams.

In the 1940s, Aalto proclaimed himself committed to an architecture that was “functional mainly from the human point of view.” He saw housing in particular as an opportunity to address “problems in the humanitarian and psychological fields.” Baker House became a deliberate embodiment of those intentions, with configurations of student rooms, small group lounges, general circulation routes, and larger common rooms all carefully orchestrated to promote casual student encounters and personal interaction. The building has worked magnificently for 50 years; it is consistently among the most popular dorms on campus despite periods of egregious physical neglect.

So how does one restore a building that is at least as much about life as it is about form? The question is particularly thorny in the current postmodern era, in which building imagery (be it classical or modernist) dominates our definition of architecture, and “functionalism” (a term Aalto bandied about generously) has virtually dropped from the contemporary lexicon. Fortunately David Fixler, director of historic preservation at Perry Dean Rogers &Partners and leader of the Baker House restoration team, is one of a cadre of preservationists who advocate preservation of our experience of the building as a useful defense against objectification of modern architecture. Fixler views Aalto’s dormitory as an architecture that “demands to be used, to acquire the patina of age-in effect, to generate history.”

The top-to-bottom renovation of Baker House, which culminated in a rededication ceremony last October, has breathed new life into a still vital organism rather than mothballing a hallowed artifact. In the two-phase renovation, which took place in the summers of 1998 and 1999, Fixler’s team took important steps to preserve and extend the life of Baker House for generations of undergraduates to come.

First, the restoration team decided to retain the original student room configurations, even though the room sizes and relationships are considered outdated by today’s student-housing standards. Virtually every single, double, triple, and quadruple room was kept intact, although the notion of four freshmen bunking together in close quarters went the way of the slide rule long ago. In Baker House, triples and quads still make sense as initiation sites for the broad socialization crucial to the building’s overall concept. Though even the most adamant fan of Baker House as a building artifact would have forgiven a few partition changes, the life of the building would not have been the same if its quirky but thoughtful room mix had been normalized.

Second, Fixler and his cohorts removed the 1962 bedroom additions on the upper floors. Critical lounge space regained its original function, and floors four, five, and six, which are farther away from ground-floor common areas, are again duly compensated with more generous local lounges, as Aalto intended.

Third, the architects researched documents locally and in Finland to identify features of the original design that had been changed or left unexecuted. A roof terrace, omitted for budget reasons in late design stages, had clearly been important to Aalto. He sometimes considered the building unfinished because of its absence. The restoration fulfills Aalto’s intentions by adding a large terrace complete with a pergola.

The architectural team’s focus on preserving the building’s social and functional aspects did not distract them from attending to issues of technology and form. Their greatest challenge may have been the comprehensive upgrading of building systems and technical accoutrements in a reinforced-concrete structure with clay-tile interior partitions and minimal floor-to-floor heights. The decision to air-condition lower-floor public spaces required ingenious weaving of ductwork in ceilings to minimize intrusion on the spaces below. In the dining hall, for example, a series of fan coil units, new lighting, acoustical treatment, and sprinkler piping were required in a conspicuous ceiling above the open stairwell. Fortunately, Fixler’s team found drawings made during the project’s construction documents phase that showed an accessible, open wood-slat ceiling that could conceal the required systems.

Code changes since 1949 necessitated modifications to accommodate more stringent accessibility and safety requirements. The architects sensitively inserted an entrance ramp where a precast planter had been placed in the 1980s. They altered railings in the dining hall’s landmark open stairway to comply with current height and opening-size requirements. The new rail design incorporates elements of drawings done by Aalto as late as February 1949, interpreted by Fixler’s team in conversations with Olav Hammerstrom, an Aalto assistant who managed the Baker project in the latter stages of construction.

Fixler confesses his team “took some liberties” in a few areas. Perhaps a bit overzealous in their research, they studied Aalto’s contemporaneous work in Finland, speculating about how the motifs of that period might have been used in Baker House. Aalto, however, is not an architect whose work is easily extrapolated or predicted. Baker House is, in fact, very different from Aalto’s European work. Its finishes, in particular, are simpler and tougher with an almost Shaker economy of means. Alvaro Siza, perhaps Aalto’s closest contemporary counterpart, concluded after a recent visit to the dormitory, “You have no doubt: This is an American building. But you have no doubt: This is also an Aalto building.” Where the renovation architects incorporate the vertical tubular tiles Aalto later used in his European projects, or the custom light fixtures produced with the Louis Poulsen Company in Denmark, the restoration seems to stray from the bold, plain-spoken American feel of the original building.

But this is quibbling. For the most part, Baker House has been returned to the remarkable state of getting everything just right. This building, which steadfastly refused to pretend it was old but never wore its newness with pretension, is now an historic monument and canonic work of modern architecture. “It is not what a building is like on opening day, but 30 years later that counts,” Aalto famously remarked. That sentiment is certainly validated here, as Baker House emerges from restoration primed and ready for its second half-century.

Thinking about Campus Architecture
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Originally published in , January 2000