"I Live in a Steven Holl"

How many people can say that they've lived a chunk of their lives inside the walls of a starchitect-designed building? In light of September's Back To School spirit, this is the first in a short series in which we peek inside unconventional living spaces on a college campus (specifically at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where this writer is currently based.) We talk to Amanda Levesque and Renee Reder, two architecture students at MIT who call Steven Holl's Simmons Dormitory their home.

simmons night exterior

Simmons Hall is often casually referred to as "The Sponge," which was also Steven Holl's driving concept for this dormitory. How is this idea manifested throughout the building?

Amanda: Porosity is the main theme, and Steven Holl littered the whole dorm with organically-shaped pores. There are over 3,000 small 3'x3' windows, circular ventilation openings in the showers, and the small perforations in the wood paneling.

Renee: There are also blob-shaped lounges and study rooms, which are supposed to be the "lungs" that draw air into and up through the building. Natural light was a top priority--with only one major hallway running through lengthwise, its footprint is very skinny, and can allow light and air to flow easily from one side of the building to the other.

One of the "lungs" of Simmons -- this is the largest lounge whose lopsided atrium brings in much-needed natural light.
One of the "lungs" of Simmons -- this is the largest lounge whose lopsided atrium brings in much-needed natural light.

The curvy walls are a well-known quirk of Simmons. How does it enhance--or detract from--your living experience?

Renee: Curvy walls are cool, but it makes arranging furniture a real headache--most students don't want them. I really enjoy being in the blob-shaped lounges, but Steven Holl probably didn't think of how the inverse of them would affect students' rooms. But since they're built from concrete, they make for rather excellent chalkboards.

Amanda: The funny thing is, Steven Holl didn't really quantify the exact shapes of the curved walls when he designed it. He only had plans, and so when this was built, they printed out the plans literally at full scale and the builders went off of that. As you go up floors, you can see through the changing curvatures that they improved their aluminum-stud technique as they went along...

I know that some floors don't pass all the way through the building, and some are punctuated by terraces, which makes for elevator confusion and general difficulty getting around. How has the structure of Simmons influenced the culture?

Amanda: It's interesting -- Simmons is not exactly floor style, but not exactly suite style. I live in a tower on a higher floor, which is a smaller niche group. Long floors have a bigger 'dorm' community.

Renee: I agree - the architecture creates a wide variety in living groups, and has a huge effect on social relationships.

Renee and Amanda chat in the Simmons mail room, which is also the lobby and used as a meeting place. You can see three levels of porosity -- perforated wood paneling, metal overhead railing, and windows in the concrete walls.
Renee and Amanda chat in the Simmons mail room, which is also the lobby and used as a meeting place. You can see three levels of porosity -- perforated wood paneling, metal overhead railing, and windows in the concrete walls.
The dining hall at Simmons is a common place to eat, gather, or just relax on one of these black rubber (read: bouncy!) chairs.
The dining hall at Simmons is a common place to eat, gather, or just relax on one of these black rubber (read: bouncy!) chairs.

What kind of furniture do students use?

Amanda: Steven Holl designed custom, modular furniture for Simmons Hall as a whole. Two drawers equal the height of the bed, and three drawers equal the height of a wardrobe. Basically, there are about 12 different configurations.

Renee: And as a result, students get to somewhat 'design' their room. It's like a kit of parts!

Renee capitalizes on space by placing the modular drawers underneath the bed. However, this configuration precludes sunlight from entering the room via the lowest row of windows.
Renee capitalizes on space by placing the modular drawers underneath the bed. However, this configuration precludes sunlight from entering the room via the lowest row of windows.

Since MIT students get to select where they want to live freshman year, why was Simmons your number one choice?

Renee: I really liked the offbeat culture of Simmons, which may in part have been inspired by the architecture. For example, Steven Holl designed a specific 'meditation room' for us, but it went unused for years...until some students awhile back turned it into a massive ball pit.

Amanda: Simply, because it has the best facilities--we have a movie theater, fitness center, dining room... It was built in 2002, and is the newest dorm on campus. I love it.

"Sometimes students like to run up the walls," says Renee.
"Sometimes students like to run up the walls," says Renee.
The meditation-room-turned-ball-pit, illuminated by blue tinted windows.
The meditation-room-turned-ball-pit, illuminated by blue tinted windows.
One of the more spacious singles, Amanda's room has a 3 x 4 array of windows that look out into Boston. "Thank goodness I don't have a curvy wall anymore," says Amanda.
One of the more spacious singles, Amanda's room has a 3 x 4 array of windows that look out into Boston. "Thank goodness I don't have a curvy wall anymore," says Amanda.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...