Massachusetts Institute of Technology

After the Industrial Revolution were almost every process of a daily life was influenced, the industrialization of the manufacturing growing and changing the way of thinking and the way of doing things turned United State in a standard of production.

In response to this early event, there is the need to create the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. In 1859 there was a first attempt of making a “Conservatory of Art and Science”, a proposal was submitted to the Massachusetts General Court to use the filled lands in Back Bay in Boston, but the proposal failed. Then in 1861 a charter for the incorporation of the MIT, proposed by William Barton Rogers, was signed by the governor of Massachusetts.

Figure 1: Plan of MIT at Copley Square, Boston, ca 1905 (Source: MIT Libraries, Institute Archives & Special Collections)

The university adopted a different approach as a university, an European polytechnic mode where the objective of universities evolved from teaching the “regurgitation of knowledge” to “encouraging productive thinking.” Their purposes included training professionals, scientific investigation, improving society, and teaching critical thinking and research.

Rogers wanted to establish an institution for the rapid scientific and technological advances, understanding that all the process were faster and so the education has to get results, the combination between professional and liberal education, stating that:

“ The true and only practicable object of a polytechnic school is, as I conceive, the teaching, not on the minute details and manipulation of the arts, which can be done only in the workshop, but the inculcation of those scientific principles which from the basis and explanation of them, and along with this, a full and methodical review of all their leading processes and operations in connection with physical laws”1

Figure 2: The beginning of MIT, The Rogers building named after William Barton Rogers, ca 1883 (Source: MIT Libraries, Institute Archives & Special Collections)

At the same time that the MIT was founded, the United State civil war broke out, delaying any plans of starting the instated, because of this the first class was held in 1865, in a rented building while their own were finished.

The first building of MIT was finished in 1866 and was located in Copley Square in Boston and started with 3 building (Rogers Building) even with the constant financial problem and the war the campus continued growing around the same area having 10 buildings within the city, (Roger Building – Walker Building – Henry L. Pierce Building – Engineering Buildings – Technology Union – Lowell Building – Mechanical Laboratories – Gymnasium – Technology Club).

Figure 3: The beginning of MIT, Boston configuration, ca 1909 (Source: MIT Libraries, Institute Archives & Special Collections)

Figure 4: The site for New Technology (Source: MIT Libraries, Institute Archives & Special Collections)

In the early 1900s the need for space made the university president Richard Cockburn Maclaurin in 1909 to search for a new location for what he called “New Technologies”.  An Alumni from the class of 1876 John Ripley Freeman, had done studies of the Charles River and surrounding land for the preparation of the Charles River Dam. The information of this study made possible to select Cambridge as the location of the new campus, with an initial purchase of 46 acres on the banks of the Charles River.

Freeman then by himself, did preliminary studies for the design of the campus with the hope that he would be selected for it. He reviewed studies by Institute professors “for the housing and fitting up of the individual departments” and oversaw the work of Surveyors who examined the buildings and equipment at colleges and technical schools in the U.S. and Canada.

He then assembled all the information into “Study No. 7”, the study covered every detail of design and built, covering the need of space within but staying in the limits of the budget.

He then made his own design for the main building with following guidelines: “ First of all, we must obtain a flood of window light; Second, a flood of fresh air under perfect control; Third, an efficiency and avoidance of lost motion by student and teacher, equal to that which obtains in our best industrial works; and Fourth the consideration of the psychology of student life, the cultivation of the social instincts, the development of personal contact, must strongly control the layout of the very masonry”.2

Despite its extensive work and study on the matter, Freeman did not get the part as the new campus Architect but, many of his ideas were incorporated in the final construction.

The responsibility of the design of the campus was given to William Welles Bosworth, an American architect who was influenced by the City Beautiful Movement.

Figure 5: Cambridge 1924, Grounds and Buildings (Source: MIT Libraries, Institute Archives & Special Collections)

The first building constructed on the Cambridge campus is the Maclaurin buildings, the buildings were built in reinforced concrete, one of the first application of concrete in a non industrial building in the U.S. The building maintains the classical line of the European traditional universities with the buildings surrounding a cloister (Killian Court) but in this case with an open front to the river, and maintaining the essence of a monument by “The Great Dome” overlooking the scene.3

From this point, the campus grows constantly on its East side until late 1940’s that it began to spread on the other side of the Massachusetts Ave. the development of the East area is as a result of the need of space for social life and spreading of the students, faculty, and staff.

Between the Industrial Revolution and the WWII, the goal of the university was in explore and create, always in a technological point of view, only in 1932 a Division of Humanities was created at MIT.

In January of 1947 the Lewis Committee was created, with the mission of “examine the principles of education that had served as a guide to academic policy at MIT for almost ninety years, and to determine whether they were applicable to the conditions of a new era emerging from social upheaval and the disasters of war”. In December 1949, the Lewis Committee Report Was issued and it mainly recommended a School of Humanities and Social Science on equal footing with the Schools of Science, Engineering, and Architecture.

The East area is a representation of several Reports that different university committees generate according to the student body welfare and interaction, then it’s clear that the decision on having most dormitories and student life facilities to the west of the Massachusetts Avenue and most academic buildings to the east was affected by this report.

The post- war architecture on MIT can be reflected in the Baker House housing by Alvar Aalto (1947), then the balance between the spiritual and the ordinary made by the MIT Chapel and Kresge Auditorium, both made in 1955 and by the same architect Eero Saarinen.


It can be inferred that with this unstoppable development of the technological areas and later the race for more powerful weapons the M.I.T kept aside the humanities areas until their one people started to ask for them.

In 1949, with the understanding that the world had changed and that “the release of nuclear energy is having a profound effect on the course of human events”, the Lewis Committee  was created to survey what changes are needed in order to continue the standards of the Institute with the students and staff life within the campus, on December of that same year the report was issued, and it mainly recommended a School of Humanities and Social Science on equal footing with the Schools of Science, Engineering, and Architecture.

The year before the report Everett M. Baker, the Dean had communicated to James Killian the president that a buildup of faculty and student requests for a campus chapel, which Baker recommended be located in some existing room on campus, possibly in proximity to the library’s books on religion and philosophy. Then Killian suggested Baker to take the proposal of a chapel to the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Science John Burchard, so he compiled a memorandum titled ” The Need for a Chapel Auditorium” recommending that the institute build a 1200-seat auditorium that contained within it a 75-seat chapel, Baker stated that: “It is difficult to think of America without the village church and the meeting house. It is equally difficult to imagine M.I.T of tomorrow fulfilling its many responsibilities to our nation and our world without its chapel and its meeting house”.4

Killian prepared the bases of what this “auditorium – chapel” should be or should point to be for the community, students, and staff.

Regarding the auditorium, Killian projected the vision of a Cambridge University professor delivering a formal lecture, or an academic processional occurring there, or a performance of the London String Quartet, while also describing it as “a place where a distinguished minister might hold religious services”. From Killians descriptions it looks that he is talking about one building that will unify all and provide to the Institute and the community.

Nevertheless, the auditorium and the chapel seemed to be drifting apart. Killian imagined the devotional chapel as perhaps “connected with the auditorium by an ambulatory of some similar architectural device” more than a single volume. But he never left the dual secular/religious function with the New England meeting house.

During the next few years, Killian frequently evoked this “meeting house” image about the project, describing it as a “house of many uses” in which ” men and women went to worship God, to hold their town meetings, and to further their cultural and civic interests.


Burchard identifies the conflict about the proposal stating:

“Is the dedication going to stress dependence on the creator, on a power greater than man, or not? The related question is: If we do not stress this dependence, do we silently affirm the opposite? Do we silently say that humanism is the answer?” In returning to the idea of “the auditorium as the New England Meeting House” and “the Chapel as the one building on campus in scale with a man” ( both attributed to Killian’s point of view).  Just as the imaginary of the “New England meeting house” also claims the village church, so did the auditorium require the chapel to complete its meaning.5

Figure 6: Site plan with the new auditorium and the chapel (Source: MIT Libraries, Institute Archives & Special Collections)

Then the Dean hired Eero Saarinen, for the design of a non-denominational chapel, an auditorium, and a connecting plaza on a site on Massachusetts Avenue. The goal was to define an area of the campus that would encourage students to organize meetings, religious services, and art performances or exhibitions. The two buildings face each other across an ample open space on a simple lawn even though Saarinen also design the plaza with triangular swatches of paving and grass.

Figure 7: Proposal model (Source: Library of Congress, Print &Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Archive at the library of congress.

The chapel is a simple windowless brick cylinder set inside a shallow concrete pool. The brick is supported by a series of low arches. Saarinen chose bricks that were rough and imperfect to create a textured effect, the whole is set in two groves of London Planetrees, with a long wall to the east. The wall and trees provide a uniform background for the chapel, and insolate the site from the noise of adjacent buildings.

In this windowless space, the roof opening aligned with the altar flood the chapel with light through a full-height metal sculpture made by Harry Bertoia, the light glitters from the circular skylight down. Another iconic item of the chapel is the unique bell tower designed by sculptor Theodore Roszak and was added in 1956.6

Saarinen expressed his own concepts about the auditorium/ chapel complex in June 1955 issue of Technology Review. He defended his design against the criticism that the auditorium had not been planned for optimal acoustical advantage and that the cylindrically shaped chapel had no windows. The acoustics were a “modifying factor for any auditorium, but “not a science with the authority to impose a basic shape”. A building form must be “expressive of a larger purpose” and have a “meaningful relation to its site and neighbors.” The chapel’s windowless cylinder “implied the self-contained, inward-feeling which was desirable” for a place of worship. Its undulating interior walls promoted good acoustics as well as an “enclosed feeling.” The arches supporting the structure from a water-filled moat allowed a “soft, mysterious secondary light” to serve as “a foil to the light coming from directly above the altar.”7

“ Is there any reason why a chapel need to have windows? Could it not be illuminated by light reflected through water as in the beautiful grottoes of Capri?”



Saarinen, Eero. “Campus Planning: The unique World of the University” – Architectural Record 128, no.5 (November 1960)

James R. Killian to E.B White 28 October 1954

Baker, Everett M. “Memorandum to James R. Killian Re: The need for a Chapel Auditorium”

Zevi, Bruno. Zevi, Richards, and Giedion, “Three Critics Discuss M.I.T’s New Buildings”

Department of Architecture, MIT. “A Second Modernism: MIT, Architecture, and the Techno-social Moment.

The technology press December, 1949. Report of The Committee on Educational Survey.

Reinhold, Martin. “The MIT Chapel, An interdiscursive History”

Coir, Mark 2006. “The Cranbrook Factor” Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.