Aalto’s MIT Masterpiece

Cross the Harvard Bridge from Boston’s Back Bay to the MIT campus in Cambridge, and you might miss Baker House. It cuts a relatively low profile: six horizontally sweeping stories of red brick tucked in to the left. But as you near Memorial Drive, Alvar Aalto’s masterpiece throws you a captivating curve, its sinuous southern facade echoing the Charles River. The main approach, from the school’s massive Neoclassical hub, cuts between MIT’s other Finnish classics—Eero Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium and Chapel—and through the dorm’s split-level lobby and lounge. This Aalto axis continues into the “moon garden,” a two-story dining pavilion with a maple-slatted ceiling pierced by cylindrical skylights.

Most architects know of Baker House through old textbook photos of its famous facade and north-facing cantilevered stairs. But the dorm is very much alive, thanks in part to a recently completed $24 million restoration overseen by Perry Dean Rogers (PDR). Over the years Baker has been one of MIT’s most popular dorms (harder to get into than the school itself, its residents like to say).

The four-phase restoration, which had to work around the academic calendar and was suspended for two years for lack of funds, took seven years. In that time MIT overhauled and modernized Baker House, while striving to maintain the building’s architectural integrity. The renovation has made a popular dorm more user-friendly and spruced up an icon, while sparking a debate over preservation practices.

Although it competed for the job, PDR would seem to be the obvious choice. Perry Shaw Hepburn, the firm’s earlier incarnation, was Aalto’s local partner for the original project, from 1947 to 1948. It also worked on the sanitized and chronologically challenged Colonial Williamsburg from the 1920s to the 1950s. “Some intellectuals say—and they may have some credence—that that particular commission set the Modern movement back fifty years in the United States,” PDR’s principal Charles Rogers says. Of the Baker House project, he says, “We tried not to do anything we didn’t think Aalto would have done.”

Baker House is a significant postwar building, one that marked a departure from strict International Style functionalism. The dorm’s signature waveform isn’t merely sculptural but provides the majority of rooms river views and oblique exposure to Memorial Drive traffic. The undulating facade yields wedge-shaped, trapezoidal, and rectangular rooms—dubbed “pie,” “couch,” and “coffin” by students—and the single-loaded halls (with rooms on only one side) open the living areas to cross-breezes.

The dorm remains remarkably vital, but this fall students returned to a hybrid environment: part Aalto, part Perry Dean Rogers. “We couldn’t pretend to be Alvar Aalto,” says David Fixler, project manager from 1996 to 2000, who then served as preservation adviser through the project’s completion. “There are no absolutes. That’s what makes it a design process. When you tamper with anything, you’re designing—even if you’re restoring. I started out being much more doctrinaire. But the more you get into it, the more you realize that much of it is a perpetual series of judgment calls.”

The restoration involved technical upgrades typical for a half-century-old building—replacing wiring, plumbing, windows, and HVAC systems; repointing the facade’s distinctive irregular brickwork; and ADA and code compliance. But the interpretations of Aalto’s “original intent” have raised some purist eyebrows. “I was quite surprised to observe a number of design choices that are in contradiction with decent restoration practices,” says Kristian Gullichsen, a Finnish architect who directs the Alvar Aalto Foundation and visited Baker House in 1999 for its 50th anniversary symposium and building rededication.

The foundation, which participates in Aalto restorations mainly in Finland, was not actively involved in the project, although PDR and MIT conducted research at the Helsinki museum and library, and had periodic contacts with its staff. The research turned up drawings that informed the new roof deck and pergola designs; in PDR’s archives they found original drawings of the dining-hall ceiling scheme that was adopted during the renovation. “The goal was to get Aalto into our heads and hands so that when we had to make changes, we would know how to do it appropriately,” says Susan Personette, former MIT senior project manager.

Gullichsen acknowledges the need to update a living building but questions after-the-fact collaboration with Aalto. “There is no problem with reorienting the front desk, or installing a new elevator, or refurbishing the basement,” he says. “But there has to be a clear distinction between what is original and what is not. The modifications should not pretend to be part of the original design, nor should they be based on speculation of architectural intent. It is simply not correct to introduce ‘neo-Aalto’ light fittings or ‘Aaltoesque’ wooden details that the public will take for originals. A trained eye will of course immediately identify them as clumsy imitations. It is a mystery to me how those involved managed to fall into that trap.”

Fixler argues that the ceiling amounts to a practical necessity backed by historical documentation—working drawings of the wood-slat treatment signed by Aalto. “If we’d left the ceiling as it had been built and put in all the necessary upgrades, it would look terrible,” says Fixler, who serves as president of the New England chapter of Docomomo, the group dedicated to preserving Modernist buildings. “It’d be pockmarked with access panels. To Aalto it was a pristine surface, broken only by light fixtures.”

It has been argued that Modernist works warrant a special preservation methodology given their social and technical underpinnings. But most architects are leery about applying a strict formula to any building. “It’s all an interpretation,” says Hugh Hardy, a partner with Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, which counts Radio City Music Hall and Manhattan’s Central Synagogue among its many restoration projects. “Each project has a different origin, a different community, a different set of uses, and a different context.” The task is to consult a variety of sources, get a sense of the original architect’s intentions, and keep an open mind. “Change is inevitable,” Hardy says. “The question is what’s appropriate. In some cases replication is an asset. On the other hand, if you’re adding a large volume onto an existing building, you can make a strong case that it ought to be contemporary.”

Just as Aalto rejected orthodox Modernism, the Baker House team opted against rigid preservation principles, in some cases restoring what was originally built (the stucco exterior of the north stair), in others modifying the original design (the reorientation of the lobby desk), and in still others implementing what was thought to be Aalto’s “original intent” (the upper dining-hall ceiling). This departs from the once typical all-or-nothing approach to preservation in the United States, according to Stanford Anderson, head of MIT’s architecture department. “Either we just don’t preserve something—we knock it down, or else we get into this kind of homage that puts preservation needs above use,” he says. “Then you travel to Italy and you see they don’t have a big problem with a contemporary architect coming in and doing something quite daring and in the end complementary to what was there before.”

So why not hire Peter Eisenman to do something radical? “Baker House is certainly the best Aalto building this side of the Atlantic,” Anderson says. “It is still being used as a dormitory. The changes that had to be addressed were not that fundamental. It makes sense that MIT took more of a preservationist approach.”

Some of Aalto’s unrealized Baker House designs were left to the archives. He had toyed with the idea of cladding the north stairs in aluminum or a copper alloy and then settled on terra-cotta tiles, only to have the contractor balk at installing them. The restoration team considered carrying out the terra-cotta scheme. “I took the position that if the building was going to be completely restored, the architect would still want to realize his design,” Rogers says. “It was a big fight, which we didn’t win.” Similarly Aalto insisted in letters to assistants (he spent very little time in the United States during the project) that trellises be installed on the southern facade. These missed the cut both times.

The original dorm lacked usable roof space, but the restoration team did build a deck to replace one cobbled together by students. “It was clear from a lot of the early sketches that Aalto had intended there to be an outdoor space with some kind of covering on the roof,” PDR’s project architect Jeffrey Fishbein says.

The dorm’s iconic furniture, including its “elephant” wardrobes, “giraffe” shelving units, and bent-plywood chairs, were designed by Aalto and his wife and partner, Aino, and built at the architect’s Artek factory in Sweden. But the real key to the dorm’s success, residents say, is the natural flow of its communal spaces. The single entrance, central dining area, and ample lounge spaces foster a strong sense of community; the dual stairs allow students to circulate vertically as well as horizontally. “The house is very porous,” faculty housemaster Will Watson notes. “If your friends are on the fourth floor and you live on the fifth floor, there’s no problem.”

Baker House is, however, a product of its time and place. “When I first walked through there, I thought, This is a down-and-dirty structure,” Fixler says. “As you grow into it, you realize there’s a real ethic being expressed there about what the world was like at the time. Baker forces you to come to terms with it in a way that can be difficult. It’s rewarding when you do. The building continues to grow on me. That’s the true mark of great architecture.”

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