Steven Holl’s Simmons Hall building at MIT can be read as both a celebration and a critique of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. Its social goals (fostering community and providing a comfortable living space suited to its time in history) and physiological concerns (modulating light, for example) are similar, if not exactly the same. Its articulation of those concerns in architectural form is both linked to and divergent from the Unité’s.
Simmons Hall was designed and built from 1999 to 2002, almost 50 years after Le Corbusier built his renowned and highly influential Unité d’Habitation (1947-1952), a prototypical block housing project in the French city of Marseilles. Both buildings house a large number of people in stacked standardized units made largely of prefabricated materials. Both buildings are legible as monolithic blocks that undergo formal transformations without losing their defining block geometry. Both buildings have a regular grid on the façade, generated by physiological concerns such as the flow of natural light, but modified to create a varied and more interesting composition (Figure 1). Both buildings are spaces of pedagogy: the Unité is a place that facilitates Modern life for an idealized Modern man, and Simmons is literally a place where students come together to live and study. The most striking similarity, however, and one that is not immediately visible, is the presence in both buildings of playful, curvilinear, and sculpted concrete forms (Figure 2). These forms are irregular and undulating. They are in no way legible as rationally generated geometry, at least at the experiential scale. They are reminiscent of nature and I will therefore refer to them as “organic”.
These similarities suggest a kind of narrative in which the Unité may be seen as a precedent to Simmons. This narrative is complicated when we also begin to observe how vastly different the two buildings are. At the Unité, the organic space of disorder and play is limited to the roof and to the massive piloti that raise the entire building above the ground. It is tempered and restrained. The housing units themselves remain rational and standardized. Rues intérieurs (interior streets) run through the building, complete with shops and a restaurant. The building itself becomes a dense cityscape, and this is evident in the project’s second name, La Ville Radieuse. At Simmons, Holl takes the organic forms of the Unité’s roof and pulls them in and down through the building, creating ever-changing undulating walls and light wells. If we pursue this narrative in which Simmons is read through the lens of the Unité, we see Holl augmenting the grid condition of the Unité’s façade. He maintains the color but pixelates it further, creating an even finer and more monotonous grid. He then counters this move by making the brise-soleil (the larger openings) incredibly large, so large in fact that they begin to poke voids right through the building. He is heightening the effect of the Unité to an extent where Simmons is no longer a representation of Le Corbusier’s project but a 21st-century reorigination of it. This reorigination is both a celebration and a trenchant critique of the Unité.
Before I discuss how Simmons both celebrates and criticizes the Unité, I want to say what I mean by reorigination. Jeffrey Kipnis defines the term in his 2006 essay, explaining that Gilles Deleuze’s elaboration of the idea of the diagram can be a good way to understand it:
The diagram and its processes are to reorigination what the sign and its processes are to representation. The diagram, therefore, is the basis for all medium specificity. Medium specificity is the production by any medium of signals that are, in total, irreducible and irreproducible by any other medium. Reorigination is nothing other than the total effect of the signal.
For Kipnis, reorigination is different from mere representation because it expresses the diagram in an entirely original way. In Simmons, Holl preserves the diagram of the Unité. Its architectural expression, however, is specific and inventive.
The similarities I have listed at the beginning of this essay illustrate some of the ways in which Simmons celebreates the Unité. Simmons’s critique of the Unité is more subtle. There are two important differences in the two buildings that establish Simmons’s position as a critique. The first has to do with the way the building meets the ground. In this regard, Simmons departs radically from the Unité. Whereas Le Corbusier’s building is lifted off the ground and set against the mountainous landscape as a distinct object that frames it, Holl’s building meets the ground directly (Figure 3). This meeting is not gradual. The object quality of Simmons is preserved because it sits on the ground as a block. Figure 3, however, begins to show how Simmons is actually much more a part of its surrounding landscape. Its footprint mimics the pattern of the existing soccer fields. Its voids allow the surrounding landscape a visual connectivity that begins to deconstruct and dematerialize the building’s object quality. Even the goal posts, it seems, are literally repeated as punctures in the building’s façade, marking it as a continuation of the surrounding landscape.
This same question of whether the building wants to be an object in space or to meld into the very landscape it exists in can be explored in the treatment of the entrance as well (Figure 4). Because the Unité wants to be distinct from its landscape, the entrance at ground level is not immediately visible. That would expose the building’s connection to the ground. The entrance at Simmons is expressed. The building’s skin is punctured or it folds out to acknowledge the arrival of its inhabitant. The squares become circles and the circles become amorphous shapes. This begins to critique the lack of variation or individuation at the Unité. This is a point I will return to later.
The second way in which Simmons departs from the Unité is quite radical as well. Instead of bringing the city into the space of its architecture, Simmons brings in the landscape, or nature. It is interesting to compare again the recurring undulating wall in Simmons’s interior spaces to the regularity of the rues intérieur at the Unité. The Unité introduces efficient connections and dense stacking of program. Simmons does this to an extent and then it begins to depart from efficiency and to tread into the world of ambiguity and redundancy. The organic form of the curving wall appears and reappears on various floors, continuous but ever-changing. Often, one finds a small laundry room or a study space with three walls that are orthogonal and one that drastically challenges this otherwise regularized space. The problem of homogeneity in mass housing is resolved in Simmons by introducing in its space a shifting landscape, complete with intimate passageways, larger (12-feet wide) passageways, alcoves, and loggias reminiscent of Isamu Naguchi’s sculptural gardens. This landscape is distinctly legible precisely because it exists inside the ordered space of the pixel grid.
The curving wall creates valleys and caves which often connect several floors. The contrast in its texture in the entrance lobby seems to be an exact reference to the playful textures of the roofscape at the Unité. Holl describes his wall as a sponge (Figure 5) but to me it is more reminiscent of a mountain. At the entrance of Simmons, you can climb a stair along this wall. Because it opens up unexpected views, the wall becomes a site for reflection and meditation, and this intention is labeled in the building’s section diagram (Figure 6, relabeled for clarity). For MIT’s students, this space of meditation is a pleasant change from the stressful, urban condition of the otherwise industrial-looking campus.
A comparison of the section diagrams for the two buildings reveals other relevant details. The theatre, which is situated on the roof of the Unité, has moved to the basement of Simmons. In this way, the site of play is incorporated within the building’s interior space. An actual play room is also part of the program. Also, while Le Corbusier acknowledges the automobile by allowing it to pass under his building, Holl illustrates a delivery truck literally backing into the space of Simmons on the left side of his section drawing. In the same drawing, we see a fragmentation, where common rooms become smaller and more scattered, and we see recognition of individuals with specific needs, evident in the labeling of spaces reserved for visiting scholars and graduate students.
Simmons is strikingly similar to the Unité and yet radically different. This dialectic is what holds the two in tension and allows a reading of Simmons as both a celebration of the diagram that produced the Unité and a critique of the reality of its architecture. Simmons indexes a disintegration of the mechanical sameness of the Unité, where each unit was designed as a drawer that could be plugged into the frame of the building. It records the disintegration of the Ville Radieuse, almost as though the city was allowed to grow and shift organically, and nature was allowed to infiltrate it. At the same time, however, the monolithic object is unified like never before: as the curving wall makes it way up through the building, its continuity establishes the link from one floor to the next and allows an appreciation of the vastness of this landscape—an appreciation that is missing from the incubated interiors of the identical units of the Unité. The building is deconstructed piece by piece to acknowledge the presence of individuals and of nature—and all the excitement and serendipity that accompanies them.