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After a while, we tended to forget that Baker House was (and is) an architectural gem. And those architecture students — pilgrims, fanboys — with their sketchpads that wandered through our home at random times... They were kind of like the swallows of Capistrano: they simply came and went during certain seasons, and we didn't interact much with them...
So it's good to remember that we were lucky enough to live in a truly inspired building. Thanks, Alvar.
Probably one of the most thoughtful articles ever written about not just the architecture of the building, but about the interaction of the building and its residents.
Written by Stanley Abercrombie (Senior Editor of Architecture Plus) on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Baker House.
Sorry for the huge size of the scanned PDF file (11.3 MB), but this is definitely worth downloading and reading.
Article criticizes Baker use
By Bill Conklin
Twenty-five-year-old Baker House is featured in the July issue of Architecture Plus. Though praising Baker House, the article highly criticized MIT's use of it.
An article by Stanley Abercrombie, senior editor of the magazine, noted the dorm's Silver Anniversary and saluted Alvar Aalto, the building's architect, for his creativity and freedom of design.
The red brick walls and undulating structure broke from the popular International style of the late 1940'5, which dictated white, smooth buildings in geometric shapes.
In its criticism, the magazine cited MIT's Physical Plant department for "shoddy maintenance" and "insensitive modifications," such as the appropriation of lounge areas for more rooms, and replacing original cabinetwork with "inappropriate rubbish."
Ken Browning, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, disagreed. "The Housing Office is responsible for maintenance, not the Physical Plant. And he [the author] was a little remiss in his criticism. I don't think the maintenance has been that bad."
Browning felt some deterioration was inevitable. "The building operated non-stop for 23 years before it was closed for repairs the summer before last."
Abercrombie. though somewhat critical of MIT's use of the dorm, stated that every resident he spoke to said they liked it. He cited the "spirit" as the reason given most often for this preference, and stated that "a minimum of regimentation in Baker House" was in part responsible for this spirit.
The article concluded by saying that "MIT ... has a fine and useful building without fully appreciating it."
The original plans for the building had to be modified to conform to the Cambridge building codes and to MIT's budget. Metal trellises were to have covered the south wall so vines could be grown on them for shade.
According to the article, clay tile replaced the brick on most of the interior walls, and cement plaster was used instead of ceramic tile on some walls of the dining room.
He also said that the lounges made into dorms were the result of the overcrowded housing situation of recent years. The building was completed in 1948 and put into use the following year. In 1950, the dorm was named, for Everett Moore Baker, Dean of Students, who died in a plane crash that year.
And a followup "Letter to the Editor" from William Blum.
Architectural Significance & Maintenance of Baker House
Occasionally, someone (often from another university's Architecture Department) would publish or write something berating the MIT administration for the deplorable condition of Baker House,
and to ask them to maintain the building like the true architectural gem it is...
- Correspondence - from Nicholas Ray (Lecturer in Architecture), University of Cambridge (the original Cambridge in England, you guys...)
- Letter to the Editor of The Tech - from Peter Blake (Chairman, Department of Architecture and Planning), Catholic University
Designed by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto during his stay as visiting professor of architecture, 1947-49, Baker House, the serpentine-shaped dormitory just southwest of Kresge, has been in use for 14 years.
The glass-enclosed dining room which extends from the building proper toward Memorial Drive was described by Aalto as the "focus" of the building's exterior design. It is lighted by numerous specially-designed round skylights and lamps mounted above the skylights for use after dark.
The dormitory was named after Dr. Everett Moore Baker, Dean of Students, 1947-50, who was killed in an airplane crash in Egypt in August, 1950.
from the August/September 1979 Technology Review
[ this article make more sense in the context of fund-raising... ]
Walk in and you will be surprised.
Any misgivings you may have had before entering Alvar Aalto's Baker House are immediately dispelled.
From the outside the dark red brick is imposing but heavy, the staircase climbing up the wall cuts a strange pattern. But the undulating curves of the side facing the Charles are graceful and unexpected. And once through the door, after a rush of initial delight, further exploration will only heighten the effect. Aalto built for the enjoyment of the students, and he created a design "determined by human experience rather than mere abstraction: the changes in ceiling height that signaled degrees of privacy, the windows placed for the view rather than the formal pattern, the Aalto-designed furniture that never felt cold to the touch or reflected too much sound, the handrail shaped for a satisfying grip - the handrail that was also a continuous visual link from exterior through vestibule into lobby," writes John Morris Dixon, '55, in Progressive Architecture. In short, Baker House (one of three buildings the Finnish architect Aalto designed in the U.S.), is one of the most important monuments of 20th century architecture.
The furniture in all rooms is identical, but movable and sized to fit rooms of diverse shapes. (Aalto's plan provided 22 different room shapes in the 43 rooms of a typical floor.) Individuality and unity is the result.
Baker House corridors are not just halls - they curve into wide lounge areas, "The design tends to push people out of their own rooms into a communal setting; it avoids the locked door 'mine' feeling and creates a community. There is no real floor identity - you're part of the house," explains Dean Phillips, '80, a four-year resident. "One stroke of genius - the traffic pattern was worked out so that everyone entering or leaving goes by the same area; it becomes a natural congregating point; a natural flow pattern is conducive to a social atmosphere," he adds.
The physical environment of Baker is indeed unique - and it has declined. Thirty years have taken their toll. Most of the original furniture designed by Aalto needs repair. Bricks need to be cleaned, walls reca[u]lked, plumbing and wiring need improvements.
Last spring a concerted effort began to raise the money needed for renovations. "We felt it would be nice for people out in the real world to come back," says Phillips. So they entertained 300 Baker alumni and current residents at the house, to emphasize its architectural significance and raise money for repairs. The goal of the drive is $250,000 over a three-year period.
Alumni walked around the building looking for their old rooms: "Who is living in my room now, what's it like?" Speakers (Harry Portnoy, Vice President Constantine Simeonides, '20) spoke about the architecture, the history of the design, and past experiences in the house. Uyu Sing Jung from the Jung/Brannen Assoc., Inc., talked about Baker House and Aalto.
"Many schools have definite identification with houses," explains Phillips. "We're trying to build up that sort of bond in this house. We want to avoid the phenomenon of spending four years here and then getting shut out in the cold. We're the first house to tempt alumni back; but we often do things first." -M.L .
from the January 08, 2007 Technology Review
Of Coffins, Pies, and Armadillos
Baker House was never your average dorm
By Elizabeth Durant
At the formal opening of Senior House on June 11, 1949, the building soon to be renamed Baker House (in honor of dean of students Everett Moore Baker) was touted as more than a residence: it was a "new concept in community living." In addition to accommodating 353 students, the dormitory offered a plethora of gathering spots: a large dining room with "moon garden" skylights, lounges on each floor, a game room with a fireplace, and a music-listening area.
By today's standards, that may not sound like anything special, but MIT was then largely a commuter school. As World War II veterans returned, enrollment skyrocketed; by 1949 more than 400 students lived in temporary barracks. Baker House, commissioned in 1946 from renowned Finnish architect and visiting professor Alvar Aalto, was meant to ease the housing crunch.
Aalto departed from the "International Style" of architecture then in vogue--rectilinear structures of steel, reinforced concrete, and glass. Instead, he created a wave-shaped building that used natural materials like brick, wood, and terra-cotta tiles. Thanks to the building's sinuous form, there are 22 different room shapes on a typical, 43-room floor. Students dubbed the smallest rooms "coffins," and wedge-shaped rooms along the building's curves became known as "pies." The interior wood furnishings designed by Aalto and his wife Aino have nicknames too: elephants, armadillos, and giraffes are Baker lingo for armoires, cabinets, and bookshelves.