As an outgrowth of the comprehensive master plan to update MIT’s iconic Main Group — a complex that houses the famed Infinite Corridor — the PDSI project aims to revitalize a portion of the university’s original buildings, using strategic intervention to breathe new life into the campus’s historic core.
The resulting five-story glass addition, sited on an underutilized service courtyard, includes a theory center for the Department of Physics. Yet its real purpose is to offer a new paradigm for the housing and distribution of 21st-century infrastructure within the 100-year-old, million-square-foot complex. At once technical engine and social connector, the project forms new pathways for people and systems, preserving the programmatic diversity and richness of the original complex along with its architecture.
The project proposed to consolidate three departments—Physics, the Department of Material Sciences Engineering (DMSE) and Spectroscopy—into coherent spaces within the complex. Covering a broad range of functional needs, from low-vibration optics to undergraduate instruction to theoretical physics, the project also called for transforming existing ribbons of space into a large connected area suitable for collaborative pursuits. Furthermore, the project needed to provide core infrastructure for these and future renovations in a manner that would avoid disrupting neighboring programs.
An existing, underused courtyard offered the opportunity to seamlessly address both spatial and infrastructural challenges. By linking the existing buildings with an infill addition, the resulting design simultaneously creates connected program areas and a sophisticated new network of mechanical, electrical and telecommunications systems.
To maximize natural lighting and preserve a sense of the original courtyard, the new addition recedes from the existing buildings’ facades in a series of thin, hovering planes. Programs connect to the historic structures with delicate pedestrian bridges, while frameless-glass facades, outfitted with operable windows and sliding translucent screens, create a transparent, open environment. Interior finishes include recycled slate chalkboards, milled woodwork, textured carpets and a linear metal ceiling. By focusing on a limited number of carefully detailed elements, the new and renovated spaces coalesce into a single composition that complements the existing architecture.
Beyond addressing immediate programmatic needs, a major goal of this project was to facilitate future renovations for the next century. Acknowledging that the existing spaces could not accommodate modern systems, nor should the systems be visible on the roof, the design team developed an innovative approach to phased renovation. The plan delivers new infrastructure to the corridors of the complex while keeping all old systems operational. As individual spaces are renovated, they can “plug in” to the new systems and “unplug” from the old. Once the old systems have been completely abandoned, their spaces can be recaptured as new program areas within these signature buildings.
Focused on revitalizing an existing structure for long-term viability, this project embodies sustainability, beginning with its foundations. The five-story addition sits on an existing woodpile foundation that remained after the demolition of a two-story concrete building, and 100% of stormwater is channeled to recharge groundwater and keep the piles submerged. To minimize interior ductwork and fan power while providing room-by-room environmental control, a dedicated outdoor air HVAC system works in conjunction with chilled beam cooling. Issues of daylighting, transparency and controllability likewise play into the design, contributing particularly noteworthy overall reductions in embodied energy, annual energy consumption and carbon footprint.
Photography: © Peter Vanderwarker; © Robert Benson Photography; © Payette, Images by Rachellynn Schoen