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ARCHITECTURE

Like no building you've ever seen before

Simmons Hall voted city's best

Members of the general public are often puzzled by the kinds of buildings that win architectural prizes.

After 30 years, people still express dismay over the fact that back in 1976, the bicentennial year, a national poll of architects and critics rated Boston's powerful but rather grim City Hall the seventh-best work of architecture in American history. (Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia, powerful but not grim, finished first.)

I have a feeling many people are going to respond the same way to the announcement of the winner of this year's Harleston Parker Medal. The prestigious Parker has been awarded annually since 1923 to "the most beautiful piece of architecture, building, monument or structure" in the Boston area.

This year's winner is Simmons Hall at MIT, a new undergraduate dorm on Vassar Street in Cambridge.

Simmons shares with City Hall the quality of being unlike any building you've ever seen. It was designed by New York architect Steven Holl, in collaboration with the Boston firm Perry Dean Rogers.

Holl is a professor at Columbia and a much-publicized architect who has, however, still not built a great deal. A couple of years ago, Time Magazine, stretching as usual for celebrity superlatives, called him America's greatest living architect.

From the street, Simmons appears as a long 10-story wall that looks like a vast aluminum trellis. The walls are made out of a zillion factory-cast concrete frames, surfaced in aluminum. The frames are shaped like the diagram for tic-tac-toe; the square holes become windows, 5,500 of them. The frames are then piled on top of one another, like a wall of cheerleaders standing on each other's shoulders. The frames bear the weight of floors and roof. Cheerleaders rarely fall down, and I'm sure Simmons won't either. But this is a bizarre way of structuring a building, and it will surely be costly to maintain.

Indoors, Simmons is equally remarkable. It's basically a perfectly ordinary dorm floor plan, with student rooms lining both sides of a wide corridor. But here and there a gray, curvy, free-form shape, looking very much like a puff of smoke, pushes its way upward, penetrating both floors and walls. As you walk down a corridor, these smoke puffs -- they're actually plaster -- may intrude into your path. Or they may push through a wall into a student bedroom. Each is hollow, like a cave. The idea is that students will take them over as private getaways. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

Simmons is the product of an era at MIT at the end of the 1990s when the institute felt flush with money. It embarked on a series of new buildings intended, in the words of then-president Chuck Vest, to be "as diverse, forward-thinking, and audacious as the community they serve. They should stand as a metaphor for the ingenuity at work inside them." Architect Frank Gehry's equally amazing Stata Center is another such building, and there are a couple more to come.

That's what's worrisome. Should a building be a metaphor for ingenuity? Did Shakespeare and Einstein and Picasso do their work in audacious metaphors? Holl certainly doesn't. His office occupies an ordinary former industrial loft in Manhattan. To me, Vest's premise is an absurd fallacy.

But I can see why Simmons got the prize. It's a daring, serious, memorable building, and in its own way it's beautiful. And so far as you can tell at this early stage, it seems to be achieving its main goal, which was to get MIT students, who sometimes lived overly isolated lives, into a place on campus where they could meet, mix, have fun, and learn from one another. Simmons offers a lot to encourage social life: a dining hall (with outdoor tables in good weather), a fitness center, computer rooms, a game room, many study spaces, and a small theater. It's rather like one of the Harvard houses, something MIT has never had.

As often happens in architecture, though, Simmons embodies some metaphors that weren't intended. To some, for example, its grid of small windows suggests a prison. And all that audacious inventiveness massacred the budget. To cut ballooning costs, rooms were reduced in size and privacy was sacrificed.

The Parker Medal was awarded by a jury of 10 people drawn from diverse fields: architecture, development, campus planning, city planning. I'm sure they feel they're issuing a wake-up call to Boston. Maybe Simmons is too inventive, but most of our local architecture is too timid.

"The jury also learned that the building is very popular with students," says its report. In that connection, it's interesting that the student tenants of Simmons are about to engage in a competition to come up with ideas to make the dorm better, a competition for which I've been asked to serve as a juror. I'll soon know more about the building than I do now.

We live in a media-dominated culture. As we saw in the many ludicrous proposals by distinguished architects for the World Trade Center site in New York, novelty ranks high among the values of that culture. But nothing fades as fast as novelty. It will be interesting to see how Simmons ranks in 20 years.

Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company