Design Review: The Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing — An Elegant Addition to the MIT Campus

By Mark Favermann

Political attacks aside, MIT’s Schwarzman College of Computing is a contemporary jewel of a building.

Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, 2024. Photo by Mark Favermann (V-truss detail)

A stunning new building, dedicated to the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), recently opened at MIT: the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). The architects were asked to create a state-of-the-art space for education, research, and collaboration to foster the training of computer scientists as well as students in various other programs.

The Schwarzman building is part of MIT’s 21st-century effort to build on its grounds structures designed by prestigious star architects. This is in response to the criticism that the university, throughout the 20th century, had assembled what looked to many a visually uninviting, disjointed campus. Since the ’40s, the institution had embraced a mishmash of mostly visually disconnected bunker-like academic buildings, converted World War I–era factories, way past their shelf-life temporary structures circa WWII, ungainly parking lots, and even several intermittent Quonset huts.

Following WWII, occasional administrative efforts were made to commission name brand architects, beginning with Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who designed Baker House, a dormitory located on Memorial Drive. In the ’50s, Eero Saarinen was commissioned to design the Kresge Auditorium and Chapel. And between 1962 and 1985, alumnus I.M. Pei designed four MIT buildings: for Earth Sciences, Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, and the original home of the MIT Media Lab, the Wiesner Building.

In the mid-’90s, an initial 10-year campus development plan, budgeted at a cost of $1.4 billion, was created with the notion that MIT should have significant contemporary buildings by international star architects such as Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, Charles Correa, Kevin Roche, Fumihiko Maki, and notable others. That 10-building plan has grown throughout the first quarter of the 21st century.

MIT President Susan Hockfield announced the goal: “The physical campus was not keeping pace with the leading-edge research of our scientists and engineers.” And it has been a success: the grounds of the institution showcase new architecturally significant academic buildings designed with the intention of promoting innovation as well as collaborative research and learning.

Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the MIT contemporary architectural approach is Frank Gehry’s Stata Center. It opened in 2004, and the building has brought together students and researchers immersed in linguistics, electrical engineering, and computer science.

Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, 2024. Photo by Mark Favermann (front facade)

A major player in the campus building plan was the late William (Bill) Mitchell (1944-2010), an urban theorist and the former architecture and planning dean at MIT. He served as the chief architectural advisor to then-president Charles M. Vest and, in that role, Mitchell guided and orchestrated this ambitious higher education building program. In truth, it was more of metamorphosis than a program: it added nearly one million square feet to MIT’s 154-acre campus.

A major benefit of this campus reimagining has been its invigorating effect on adjacent Kendall Square and East Cambridge. Over recent years, this part of Cambridge has expanded into a still-evolving corporate center for cutting-edge medical and digital technology and research.

The Schwarzman building was named for and funded by Stephen A. Schwarzman, the billionaire founder of the Blackstone Group. Conceived in 2018 to address the growing possibilities of computing technology, the college is an institute-wide academic unit that works in conjunction with MIT’s five schools: Architecture and Planning; Engineering; Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Management; and Science. Focusing on artificial intelligence research, interdisciplinary computing applications, and social and ethical responsibilities, the college will serve as an interdisciplinary hub for work in artificial intelligence, computer science, data science, and related fields. Notably, the creation of the Schwarzman College of Computing was the first significant change to MIT’s academic structure since the early ’50s.

Physically, the Schwarzman College of Computing undercuts popular perceptions that glass and steel are boring materials for contemporary tall buildings. Its apparent transparency makes the building a strong presence on Vassar Street. Its exterior is encased in a series of large (10 x 13 feet) glass “shingles” that overlap slightly; they are attached by a complex curtain wall system. From certain angles, the glass shingles give off the impression that they are floating. To go beyond the ubiquitous Kleenex Box geometry of too many buildings, the latticework of the shingled glass extends past the edifice’s perimeters. The architects at SOM call these extensions “flybys.” Detailing like this creates a broader, more continuous street wall; it also strongly underscores the building’s refreshingly bold street presence.

Regarding the front of the building, the architects came up with a simple sculptural solution: two elegant V-shaped trusses composed of I-beams enclosed in polished stainless steel. This look references mid-century architectural masters: the trusses set up strong focal points, which reinforces the impression of a dignified façade. In addition, the arrangement established a gracefully accessible relationship between the structure and the streetscape.

Frank Gehry’s Stata Center (2004), Vassar Street, Cambridge. Photo source: M.I.T.

The interior of the structure is light-filled, and filled with flexible maker spaces. Entering the building, the first thing you see is a grand central stairway that includes stadium-like seating; there are cushions where students can individually work on their laptops, collaborate, or socialize. The architects conceived of the interior as a physically flexible environment; most of the building’s public areas are finished in American white oak. The interior was specifically designed to look raw, unfinished, and neutral. The idea was to create a flexible space where faculty and staff could easily modify — even rearrange — walls to better serve teaching and research needs.

For all of its merits as a place for learning, the Schwarzman College of Computing sparked considerable controversy. Various MIT students, faculty, and alumni expressed strong criticism of the university’s decision to accept money from Schwarzman. They charged that it was unethical as well as politically opportunistic, given Schwarzman’s relationship as an advisor to Donald Trump, his financial ties to Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his opposition to a California affordable housing bill. Other MIT students questioned the institution’s decision to place the college’s focus on computing and AI — rather than on the climate crisis and environmental issues. These are certainly compelling questions.

But, political attacks aside, MIT’s Schwarzman College of Computing is a contemporary jewel of a building.

Mark Favermann is an urban designer specializing in strategic placemaking, civic branding, streetscapes, and retail settings. An award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. The designer of the iconic Coolidge Corner Theatre Marquee, he is design consultant to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and since 2002 has been a design consultant to the Boston Red Sox. Writing about urbanism, architecture, design and fine arts, Mark is contributing editor of the Arts Fuse.

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