In 2018, the Dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, Hashim Sarkis, announced that the school was exploring moving across the street to the abandoned Metropolitan Warehouse at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street. I was invited to take a tour, asked to compose an essay that reflected my experience, and raise any questions that I might have after seeing the space. The photo essay below is that response.
As we step through the door in the wood-paneled office, bright, harsh light bounces between paint-flecked walls and under corrugated vaults. A maze of hermetic steel doors slides between solid brick columns, obfuscating the layout and blocking the sun. Some walls are structural but others can be blown out, we’re told. It’s hard to visualize what will stay and what will go, slipped in, as we are, within the dead-aired spaces surrounded by crumbling poché.
Spray-painted numbers serve as our coordinates but I can’t tell whether sunlight will penetrate all the way here to locker O128. There will be a curtain wall punctured parallel to the railroad easement, but the only interior light we witnessed were the bulbs emitting starched light throughout the building and within the doll house student rooms. It’s hard to understand what five atria will do to the space – will it provide diffuse light from above or feel like the fetid courtyard of a Lower East Side tenement?
Some want a community café to bridge the town-gown gap but we can’t do that with a café. It’s too dependent on consumption. Let’s instead activate spaces that bring people together over shared interests. Look at Harvard’s new student center with a grid of tables and chairs inlaid with black and white grids for people to play chess. What we need is an activated plaza, unlike the windswept plinth currently squatting in front of Building 9. Let’s populate our spaces with benches and pianos and overhangs weighed down with wisteria so they’re places for humans.
We were enticed with offers of a state-of-the-art auditorium, a campus-wide maker space, but at the end of the day I’d rather make it easier for us to interact with other people at SA+P. Studios are closed off and scattered. Despite transparent windows, I’ve never interacted with people in an architecture studio while passing by. Navigating Buildings 3, 7, 9, 10 is difficult, with offices branching off in different directions depending on the floor you’re on. The room numbering convention is confusing to visitors and forgettable to regulars. This has to be a campus resources, sure, but it should be a resource for the school, first and foremost.
There’s a skewed relationship between private and public in SA+P, a mismatch between necessary circulation and valuable serendipity. Staircases and hallways are narrow enough to conduct an impromptu conversation or to pass by, but not both. A monumental stair might solve that for some, but for now, circulation in SA+P lacks the capacity to capitalize on chance encounters.