AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates

Kresge Auditorium, designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen, was an experiment in architectural form and construction befitting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s focus on technology and innovation. This feat of sculptural engineering serves as a meeting house and is part of the cultural, social, and spiritual core of MIT’s campus. Kresge Auditorium is one of Saarinen’s numerous daring, egalitarian designs that captured the optimistic zeitgeist of Post-war America.

AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - CityscapeAD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - ChairAD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - Image 4 of 29AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - More Images+ 24

The Dean of MIT’s architecture school engaged Saarinen’s office to design an auditorium, a non-denominational chapel, a student union, and a connecting plaza on a site on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. The goal was to define an area on campus that would encourage students to organize meetings, religious services, and art performances or exhibitions. The student union design, which would have run perpendicular to Mass Ave to create a boundary wall for the plaza, was never realized. Saarinen’s design for the plaza itself, with triangular swatches of paving and grass atop below grade parking, was rejected in favor of a simple lawn. The bold yet simple geometric forms of the two built projects- Kresge Auditorium and the MIT Chapel- face each other across an ample open space. Materially and formally each is crafted to reflect its function. The inward-looking chapel is a windowless brick extrusion in contrast to the outward thrust and transparency of the auditorium.

Site Plan
AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - Windows
via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Archive at the Library of Congress LC-DIG-krb-00237 (digital file from original)

Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), a renowned post-war designer of both the sublime and the everyday, captivated the public and transformed the architectural profession with his designs of high profile projects such as TWA terminal, Dulles International Airport and the St. Louis Gateway Arch. Furniture products created in collaboration with Charles and Ray Eames, as well as his work for Knoll, changed the technology and visual language of industrial design and are still popular today. Although best known for his soaring sculptural forms, the aesthetic of his work varied, with a number of his projects strongly influenced by the International Style. After his father and collaborator, Eliel Saarinen, passed away in 1950, Eero opened his own architecture practice and completed many notable projects before his untimely death at the age of 51. Throughout his career, Saarinen believed “the purpose of architecture is to shelter and enhance man’s life on Earth and to fulfill his belief in the nobility of his existence.” [1]

AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - Facade, Arch
via Wikipedia Commons

Although the technology had arrived from Europe beginning in the 1920s, Kresge Auditorium was the one of United State’s first large scale thin-shell concrete buildings. The elegant reinforced concrete dome comprises one eighth of the surface of a sphere and is primarily supported by three pendentives. The truncated dome encloses a triangular space approximately a half acre in area that the reaches a height of fifty feet. With the primary structural roof varying between only 3 and 7 inches thick, the span is 113 feet. Thickened edge-stiffening beams along the perimeter define the roof and bound large transparent facades. A second 2 1/2" thick nonstructural layer of lightweight concrete was applied as a substrate for roofing.  

AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - Image 13 of 29
© Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The experimental project faced numerous trials during and after construction. Originally intended to be sustained entirely on the three main supports, the deflection of edge beams was larger than anticipated and necessitated the addition of structural vertical mullions behind the windows. Appropriating conventional roof cladding material to this innovative double curved surface also proved a challenge. Marble tiles and lead-coated copper sheets were considered for the roofing material but rejected due to cost or performance issues. A system of fine limestone chips in a liquid acrylic polymer binder was eventually selected to coat the shell resulting in a pristine, smooth white casing. By 1963 differential thermal movements had led to cracking, delamination, and finally failure of the original roof system. Square lead sheets were installed. Water infiltration through the lead cladding precipitated severe deterioration due to the freeze-thaw cycle. In 1979 concrete and reinforcement of edge beams near each main support was replaced. At the same time standing seam copper roofing was put in place and remains to this day. [2]

AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - Handrail
© Flickr user Nimay Shah

From eye level, the attenuation of the form to three points gives a slender reading to the expansive container. The entry brings visitors into an elongated lobby on the level midway between the main auditorium and the smaller theater below. Additional spaces on the lower level include rehearsal areas, a lounge, dressing rooms, and a carpenter shop.

AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - Image 20 of 29
via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Archive at the Library of Congress LC-DIG-krb-00248 (digital file from original)

Though acoustics did not drive the overall form of Kresge, it shaped interior modifications that optimize the experience of performances and allow simultaneous events. The stage in the main auditorium floats on a fiberglass pad that deadens potentially disruptive vibrations from transferring to the theater below. Oak wall grating with absorptive backing, polychrome fabric seats and an array of curvilinear suspended panels calibrate the sonic environment. Even with these interventions, the domed form is legible from the interior. 

Plan showing lobby and lower level

Critical response was strongly divided. Most national design and construction periodicals followed the planning process, most with great enthusiasm. Yet the completed project faced strong detractors who criticized it for failing to relate to context, having structural shortcomings, and being an inappropriate form for an auditorium [3]. A 1955 Architectural Record article explicated the functional success of the building but found the austere material palette lacked warmth [4]. Nevertheless, in 1956 Architectural Record listed Kresge Auditorium as the 15th most significant building from the preceding hundred years [5], and in 2008 it was listed by the same periodical as one of Boston’s top ten buildings. 

AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - Chair
© Flickr user WorldofArun

For more information, check out the numerous articles on ArchDaily that feature Saarinen's work.

AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates - Cityscape
© Massachusetts Institute of Technology

[1] Quote from Eero Saarinen

[2] Boothby, Thomas; Parfitt, M. Kevin; Roise, Charlene K.,  “Case studies in diagnosis and repair of historic thin-shell concrete structures,” APT Bulletin, 2005, v.36, n.2-3, p.3-11

[3] Ford, Edward, Details of Modern Architecture, Volume 2. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. Pg 285

[4] “The opal on the Charles : [Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology]” Architectural Record, 1955 July, v. 118, p. 135

[5] “One Hundred Years of Significant Building.” Architectural Record, 1956 Nov., p. 199-200

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Cite: Michelle Miller. "AD Classics: Kresge Auditorium / Eero Saarinen and Associates" 03 Apr 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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