William J. Mitchell: Revitalization of MIT's Campus

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VEST: And because it's all changed now, I can get by with saying it. But the first time I visited here and drove down Vassar Street, the backside of the campus, I was actually appalled. I could not believe that this was the famous MIT.

MITCHELL: There've been a couple of decades of building really mediocre buildings across the campus. There were a lot of things just hadn't been maintained. What's essentially a fabulous campus organization of quadrangles and some corridors and so on had just become a kind of mess of parking lots and service areas and that kind of thing.

VEST: There was a little something in me that said, you know, wouldn't it be nice to change this a little bit. And then that began to be built upon by the things that needed to change a bit in the student and community culture. But in the early '90s, I was convinced-- in fact, I said publicly several times-- I'd probably never see a building built on the campus while I was president because the financial situation just was such I didn't think it would happen.

MITCHELL: Opportunities to do something like campus revitalization come in cycles. Firstly, the money has to be there and the demand for space has to be there. There has to be a reason to build buildings. And the kind of moment has to be right.

VEST: As time went on, and we had the desire to make some of these changes, we had the very important report issued by Task Force on Student Life and Learning that talked about the importance of building a better sense of community. We had almost no communal spaces.

And so all these things were churning in my mind when they arrived, when the stars began to align, and the economy strengthened.

MITCHELL: It became clear that there was going to be a lot of building on campus. There was going to be one of those moments where it could potentially be a transformative moment because a lot of buildings we're going to get built.

VEST: And at that time, we had Bill Mitchell as the dean of the architecture school. And I involved Bill a lot in these discussions. And I learned a lot from Bill and from his colleagues.

MITCHELL: I talk to Chuck and we saw very much eye-to-eye on this. When you have one of these transformative moments, you want to take advantage of it. You don't want to do it in a mediocre way. It's a once in a generation, once in a lifetime kind of thing. So you want to do it absolutely at the highest standard possible.

I think this is a cultural responsibility of great universities any way to be leaders in the field of architecture, be the leaders in the field of urbanism. And if we don't, who's going to do it, right? We should not think of architecture as just acquiring space like you're ordering up office supplies. Building is a statement of who you are. It's an expression of your values.

It's a process that engages the community and becomes a kind of definition of what the community is. And furthermore, we should no longer, we should no more, accept mediocre architecture. [INAUDIBLE] accept mediocre physics or mediocre mathematics. It's just not part of our value system. We wouldn't do it, right? Of course, I feel the same way about way architecture.