written by:
September 15, 2009

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.

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.
2 / 8
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.
3 / 8
"Sometimes students like to run up the walls," says Renee.
"Sometimes students like to run up the walls," says Renee.
4 / 8
The meditation-room-turned-ball-pit, illuminated by blue tinted windows.
The meditation-room-turned-ball-pit, illuminated by blue tinted windows.
5 / 8
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.
6 / 8
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.
7 / 8
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.
8 / 8
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...

Latest Articles

modern fjallbacka sweden pine boxes vacation facade
Architect Gert Wingårdh creates a passionately outfitted vacation home for two midcentury furniture dealers on the western coast of Sweden.
May 29, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent driaan claassen cape town south africa ccourtesy of driaan claasen dualpage82
Driaan Claassen combines a variety of materials and a love of history to create distinct objects.
May 29, 2016
energy star dirk wynants extremis poperinge beligium sustainable farmhouse facade
The owner of an outdoor furniture company updates a 19th-century farmhouse.
May 29, 2016
Modern small sustainable weekend home with flat roof
Two linked 1,000-square-foot pavilions are greater than a sum of their parts.
May 28, 2016
inside out los angeles home barbara bestor hollywood outdoor facade charcoal paint pool
Architect Barbara Bestor transforms a Hollywood Hills home by opening up its interior to the site’s dramatic backyard topography.
May 28, 2016
right of laneway vancouver garden sliding glass western window systems door outdoor
A Vancouver garden blossoms alongside fresh development.
May 28, 2016
20160229 dgd highhouse 1777 1024x683
Two toddlers, a pup, and their parents fit onto a 16.5-foot-wide plot in an inner suburb of Melbourne.
May 27, 2016
rec
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
May 27, 2016
capitol gains seattle multifamily living dining room wassily chair chaise le corbusier cb2
Two Seattle architects design and build a dynamic multifamily structure on a formerly vacant lot.
May 27, 2016
modern beach house thatch roof living dining bar cart
By eliminating walls and incorporating a series of interior gardens, architect José Roberto Paredes creates an eclectic and inspired El Salvador beach house.
May 27, 2016
7
A two-story Eichler in San Francisco gets a freshening up.
May 27, 2016
Bathyard renovation in Madrid, Spain
In Madrid, Spain, Husos Architects renovate a turn-of-the-20th-century apartment for a client with dual passions: her houseplants and a nice, long bath.
May 26, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
May 26, 2016
starting over sturgeon bay facade tongue and groove new growth cypress  0
After a devastating fire, architect David Salmela designs a house to replace a beloved lakeside retreat in Wisconsin.
May 26, 2016
Modern home with brick base and cedar rain screen on top level
An architect reimagines an outdated brick garage by designing a graceful new family home atop its foundation.
May 26, 2016
sardenya lr 7
A renovation brings light and order to a Spanish flat, maintaining its standout ceilings.
May 25, 2016
pow 5 25 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
May 25, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent thom fougere winnipeg canada cthom fougere studio thom fougere saddle chair 2
Designer Thom Fougere plays with scale and typology to create playful furniture.
May 25, 2016
prs my16 0067 v001 1
In the worlds of architecture and design, we’re always looking for the best ways of supporting sustainable building practices. This awareness doesn’t have to stop at our driveways but rather, it can extend to the cars we choose to take us to the places we go each day. With Toyota’s 2016 Prius, the daily task of getting from point A to point B can now be experienced with a new level of efficiency, safety, and style.
May 25, 2016
mountfordarchitects western australia
On a narrow site in Western Australia, Mountford Architects makes the most of a tight spot—with an eye to the future.
May 25, 2016
San Francisco living room with Wassily chairs
Materials and furniture transformed the layout of this San Francisco house, without the need for dramatic structural intervention.
May 24, 2016
shiver me timbers tallow wood kitchen
A pair of married architects put their exacting taste to work on their own family escape in the Australian bush.
May 24, 2016
in the balance small space massachusetts cantilevered cabin glass facade
When nature laid down a boulder of a design challenge in the Massachusetts mountains, an architect’s solution elevated the project to new heights.
May 24, 2016
Wooden Walkways
A home in Ontario, Canada, demonstrates how factory-built housing can be as site sensitive as traditional construction.
May 24, 2016
15 icff 5
From Corian furniture to immersive installations, here are some of our favorite designs we saw at the 2016 shows.
May 24, 2016
gpphoto44
A home and community celebrate natural remove in unison.
May 24, 2016
With our annual issue devoted to the outdoors on newsstands, we did a lap of Instagram for some extra inspiration.
May 23, 2016
forest for the trees english prefab mobile home facade chesnut cladding
On the edge of a historic park in an English shire, a prefabricated home sets a new design standard.
May 23, 2016
tread lightly australia
A family home on Australia’s Mornington Peninsula is built to blend in with its lakeside setting.
May 23, 2016
jardins party dining room hay chairs local wood floor
A pair of architects help a client carve out an oasis of calm amid São Paulo’s bustle.
May 23, 2016