Tuesday, June 07, 2005
The police car hack observed by WBZ-TV's traffic helicopter
Above is Simmons Hall, the latest dormitory to be built at MIT, in response to the Institute’s need to house a greater percentage of the student body on campus in the face of fraternity alcohol scandals (including deaths) and soaring prices in the local rental market. Simmons (designed by Stephen Holl) and the Stata Center, that I featured a couple of days ago, were built in response to a mandate by our director of building projects: henceforth everything we build shall be done by a name architect, nor shall anything we build ever again resemble some kind of industrial lab building. Simmons won the 2004 Harleston Parker Medal administered by the Boston Society of Architects. The Parker has been awarded to the "most beautiful piece of architecture, building, monument or structure" in the Boston area since 1923.
The building’s long, thin format is dictated by the narrow site, squeezed between Vassar St. and the train tracks that still bring freight trains into the heart of Cambridge and across main arteries via level grade crossings at about five miles per hour with bells and lights but no barriers of any kind. In the middle of this university town, the freight has priority. We’re even constructing a huge new brain/cognitive building with a tunnel through its heart just to accommodate these freight trains. Holl claims to have been inspired for Simmons by a sponge. As with anything on campus that is out of the ordinary or doesn’t have strictly right angles and time-honored geometry (which Simmons actually has in abundance) a majority of the old guard loathes it. Inside, Simmons is filled with a rich variety of textures and has many attractive features such as an extremely quirky but interesting playing space with a stage eighteen feet wide and close to fifty feet deep, no proscenium, and a narrow, steep seating bank for one hundred twenty five people
An integral part of MIT culture is the hack. Hacks (aka pranks) are common at colleges and universities and are frequently both clever and daring. MIT’s are all this and a great deal more—they consist of exquisite timing, genuine danger and meticulously planned engineering. Hacks can break out anywhere at any time (the annual Harvard/Yale football game is hacked by MIT with great regularity). When former president Charles Vest arrived for his first day on the job, he stopped briefly in his office to get essential papers and he then went to the executive conference room. Two hours later, he returned to the hall to discover his office had completely disappeared. A student hack squad had silently and efficiently, installed a wallboard panel over his door, taped and painted it the exact color of the existing wall, an hung a cork board covered with papers that upon close inspection turned out to be enthusiastic welcoming greetings to MIT’s first president since the first one not to have been an MIT alumnus. Vest was thrilled to have been greeted by a hack so faultlessly executed.
The Great Dome has long been an irresistible lure to hackers, a magnificent pedestal for them to display their creations. The car in the slightly fuzzy accompanying photo may well be the most famous hack of all. A Crown Victoria was painted like an MIT Campus Police cruiser and cut in four with added flanges to bolt it back together when in place. Like all hacks, it was transported up inside the dome (that houses an active library) then out, up the curved surface to the flat plateau on top. Like all hacks, it must be installed in the dark hours of just one night and cause no injury to people or property. In the front seat were placed a box of donuts next to a dummy of an MIT policewoman in uniform who held in her hand an envelope containing instructions on how to disassemble the whole thing and get it down. A public phone booth (not visible in this shot) was placed at some distance, and the phone began to ring the moment the first member of the Buildings and Grounds staff had arrived at the summit to inspect the installation. The entire hack is now housed in the MIT museum.