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Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Mens et manus  (“Mind and hand”) is the motto of MIT. A petition to the Commonwealth by the Massachusetts Conservatory of Arts and Sciences incorporated the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its objective was “the advancement of the Mechanical Arts, Manufactures, Commerce, Agriculture, and the applied sciences together with the promotion of the practical education of the industrial classes.” Established by a land grand charter in 1861, the institution was devoted to new ways of combining the “useful arts” of industry and agriculture with the discoveries of science and mathematics. From its beginnings, learning was equated with doing, with experiments and observation. This empirical approach made laboratories the hallmark of MIT.

Founded by William Barton Rogers in the Mercantile Library on Boylston and Berkeley streets in downtown Boston, MIT moved to its first official home in the Back Bay in 1866. The building, situated adjacent to the Museum of Natural History (today Louis; BB23) bore the name of its founder, Rogers, a professor of geology and physics. In 1916, the need for expansion led to the relocation of MIT to a forty-three-acre site on the newly created esplanade across the Charles River in Cambridge, east of Massachusetts Avenue, extending to the railroad beyond Vassar Street.

The first building, among the Maclaurin and Rogers buildings (MT1)—a fine Beaux-Arts building oriented to the river—was dedicated in 1916. One shortcoming of the original master plan now seems obvious. Despite the institute's favorable Charles River site, with the exception of the early buildings along Memorial Drive, little provision was made to integrate the campus with the river, to use the waterfront as a source for recreational amenities and aesthetic delight.

MIT thrived and grew piecemeal throughout the twentieth century. Following World War II, prominent architects created a few singularly noteworthy buildings, but a strong overall plan was missing. This became even more apparent with the boom in high-tech industries in the final quarter of the century and with the development of corporate research buildings in nearby Kendall Square (EC5).

A more labyrinthine complex could hardly be envisioned than the aggregate of structures (over 100) and exterior spaces (roughly 153 total acres) that now comprise the MIT campus, extending for over one mile along the Charles. The clarity of the original Beaux-Arts plan has long since yielded to an overall intricate fabric, necessitated by constant demands for expansion and reorganization and the imperative to relate individual buildings to the larger dimensions of the campus. Interconnected passageways between buildings, multiple entrances, and skewed intersecting grids, especially on East Campus, make circulation a challenge, except for the denizens of the institute. This seemingly random growth is somewhat alleviated by the numerical designation of buildings—the prime means of identification by the institute community. There is a no-nonsense air of purpose, an energetic pulse that one feels within this domain. And, despite an environment in which the factorylike aesthetic dominates, there are a few tree-lined quadrangles, welcome oases for repose, study, and contemplation.

At the turn of the millennium, a new building boom and yet another new infrastructure is in progress, focusing, as did the previous generation, on works by architects with international reputations. But it is also intended that they consciously express the broad aims of the institute. To quote President Charles M. Vest: “I believe the buildings on this extraordinary campus should be as diverse, innovative, and audacious as the community they support. They should stand as a metaphor for the ingenuity at work inside them.”

To explore the buildings of MIT, the campus may be divided into roughly three parts: the central core, focused around the original buildings; the west campus, devoted largely to recreational and residential facilities; and the east campus, dominated by academic structures.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Keith N. Morgan

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