Eero Saarinen’s MIT Chapel and Alvar Aalto

Last month I flew to New York City for a family event and decided to catch the Amtrak train up to Boston afterwards for look. The train journey was very straightforward and affordable. This was not my first visit to Boston – a few years ago I found myself stranded there after missing a connecting flight to Maine with work. What little I saw of this charming city left me thinking I really should try to return and explore a bit more.

Interestingly I spent a majority of my time in Cambridge which sits across the river from Boston – this is where MIT and Harvard University sit, and both campuses offer some extraordinary architectural sights.

Eero Saarinen has always been a must see architect for me ever since I saw pictures of the Miller House in Indiana which he worked on with the landscape architect Dan Kiley – so there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to visit his MIT Chapel and Kresge Auditorium.

Both buildings sit next to each other, first up was the Kresge Auditorium.

Saarinen designed Kresge Auditorium in tandem with the MIT Chapel and the buildings were an attempt to define MIT’s social cohesion – the auditorium to be used for formal events and the Chapel for weddings and interfaith worship. The auditorium is modern even today and consists of large curtain glass walls and innovative use of structural concrete.

Inside the dome contains a concert hall, theatre, bathrooms and lounges. Every seat in the concert hall has an unobstructed view, since there are no interior supports for the overarching dome and the hanging acoustic clouds were revolutionary at the time of installation.

The use of timber cladding provides intimacy within the large open space.

Fortunately no events were on so I was able to take my time and wander through the rooms open to the public.

On leaving the auditorium I couldn’t help but feel drawn towards the MIT Chapel.

Although somewhat small in size the chapel is a true gem of mid-century architecture. Unfortunately the moat was empty but when full the water reflects light into the building at low level between the brick work and concrete sub structure. While the exterior is in itself interesting it does little to prepare you for the beautiful interior.

Down lighting washes against the curved brick walls which are further up lit naturally by the moat (when full). However it is the central circular roof light with its hanging sculpture and hushed light which draws your attention and compels you to stand in awe. This really is a lovely room for contemplation and prayer.

On leaving the chapel I spent some time exploring this large and very impressive campus. On my way to find Alvar Aalto’s student accommodation I discovered a Henry Moore.

Alvar Aalto built Baker House in 1948 as a student dorm. It runs parallel to the Charles River leading Aalto to design the building in such a way to provide a river view to a maximum number of rooms, hence the curved front façade.

Not to be forgotten the rear façade facing the main campus grounds, contains cantilevered stairs which appear to hang off and separate the building.

How to visit

All three buildings are within walking distance of each other and all within the campus grounds of MIT.

If you are staying in Boston, like I was, simply walk through the main township and cross the river via the pedestrian bridge. MIT is about 300m along the riverside, you can’t miss it.

Below is the map I used to navigate my way around Boston and Cambridge, illustrated with the places I visited.

View Boston in a larger map

Kresge Auditorium by Eero Saarinen, 1953
Address: 48 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

MIT Chapel by Eero Saarinen, 1955
Address: 50 Massachusetts Avenue  Cambridge, MA 02139

Baker House by Alvar Aalto, 1948
Address: Building W7, 362 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, MA 02139