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Structure and function, dorms and culture by Jessie L. '07

If you’ve taken high school biology, you’ve probably heard that “structure follows function”. This is a good axiom for biologists, but it’s sort of backwards when you look at MIT undergraduate dorms and their cultures. You see, I have this theory that for MIT dorms, function follows structure. Or, to be more descriptive, geography and physical structure have a causal relationship with a dorm’s culture. Let me explain…

Take the East Campus/West Campus divide. As I’ve mentioned before, culturally speaking, East Campus, Senior Haus, and Random Hall are “East” (even though Random is not actually east of Mass Ave) and Baker, Burton-Conner, McCormick, Macgregor, New House, Next House, and Simmons are “West”. Bexley is not really either. West Campus people are generally considered more conventional and “normal” (though really, there’s a limit to how normal anyone at MIT is), with hobbies, decorating styles, and group cultures that reflect this. East Campus people, such as myself, are unconventional and “weird”, even relative to the general MIT population. How did this happen? There are personality differences among the East Campus dorms, among the West Campus dorms, and among the halls and entries in those dorms. With such living group diversity, how is it that geography ended up such a predictor of “normal” vs. “weird”?

Except for Simmons, which is across the athletic field from the rest of West Campus, all the West Campus dorms are on Amherst Alley, also called Dorm Row. Most of them have little lawns. Some, such as Baker, are architectural landmarks, and many of them are very pretty. There are no academic buildings in this area of campus, but in addition to the many dorms it includes the Student Center, the Z-Center (and other athletic facilities), and the athletic playing field. These features – pretty dorms grouped together, student hangouts, sports, having their own space set apart from the academic buildings – are all markers of a traditional college residential area, and a traditional college experience.

The geographical locations of the East Campus dorms are very different. East Campus and Senior Haus are in the midst of the academic buildings, only a few feet away from the Media Lab, the right-triangular building 66, the Green Building, and others. Random is near Central Square. All of these are very industrial, rather inhospitable-looking locations. These dorms are old and dingy. East Campus looks more like barracks than a dorm. Random has no place for green space; its denizens instead enjoy the outdoors on their roofdeck. East Campus has its courtyard in which the grass refuses to grow. Senior Haus has its courtyard – concrete, bare, and sometimes graffitied, with the Tree that Drinks Blood and the tire swing in the middle. Go inside any of these dorms and find brightly-colored walls (and sometimes lights), ripped carpets, chipped and broken drywall, narrow hallways. These dorms are situated in the middle of bustling activity nearly all the time. The large athletic and student facilities are absent. This, of course, is all leading up to the observation that the geographical environment of any of these dorms does not remotely resemble a traditional college anything.

Is it really so surprising, then, that over the decades the West Campus dorms attracted “normal” undergrads and the East Campus dorms attracted “weird” ones? They gravitated toward environments that suited them, and then they built cultures that reflected their personalities and their environment, which made students of either what have now come to be West and East persuasion even more likely to choose the environments they would have likely sought anyway.

I have always regarded Bexley as a mixture of East and West Campus cultural traits, and interestingly, it is also in a mixture of East and West Campus geography – at the beginning of Dorm Row, but bordering busy Mass Ave and just across from the western fringe of the academic buildings.

I know that when I was first looking at dorms, the location of East Campus was a big draw for me. It seemed more alive, more intense. It gave me a feeling that MIT, its hallways and structures and secrets, belonged to me, rather than simply being a place where I attended classes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many East Campus people become roof and tunnel hackers, learning about MIT, the physical place, to an unsurpassed degree – it’s a more natural activity for the “weird” people, but more than that, when you’re in the midst of a place, it’s yours, and you are part of it, and can feel it pulse with life, and you desire to understand it, to reveal its secrets to yourself.

Even the ugly industrial-ness of the area drew me. This, too, made it seem more alive. I step a few feet outside my dorm to the academic buildings, descend to the basement, and feel the waxed bumps beneath my bare feet, and bask in the hum of the machines. There’s a strange peace in feeling at one with a place. The dingy barracks that are the outside of East Campus complement the beat-up, debris-laden, colorful, surreal, unexpected worn beauty of the halls.

Even between West or East Campus dorms, I can see the influence of structure on culture. Senior Haus, which with its concrete courtyard outside and narrow hallways inside, has the most punkish urban-ghetto texture of any of the dorms – this is a place you can imagine the Ramones living if they’d been MIT students – and attracts the punks (who then paint the walls with graffiti, blast punk music into the courtyard, and attract more punks). East Campus and Random, buildings which give off less of a spiked-hair-leather-jacket-studded-collar impression when you walk up to them (we’re talking even before you go inside), attract more of the builders and twinkies. Macgregor has all singles and is mostly a tall tower; to access lots of people you have to make the effort to go between floors – and this makes a dorm famous for introverts.

Does this hold true for FSILGs? Somone who lives in an FSILG might have more insight, but my experience is, not much. This might be because FSILGs tend to locate themselves in whatever nice house they can acquire, and because if an FSILG moves to a new house, as some of them do from time to time, a pre-existing culture is moving into a location rather than a new culture being formed in one.

My theory has interesting implications for Simmons, MIT’s newest dorm, only a few years old. It is West Campus, and near most of the same facilities that the other West Campus dorms are…but as it is on Vassar Street rather than Dorm Row, the setting is more industrial than for the rest of West Campus, and the building looks like a robot monster from a bad sci-fi movie. Not traditional fare. On the other hand, it is new and luxurious, which are more “West” attributes. Its culture is still very young and not well-formed. Interestingly, it’s becoming known as a West Campus dorm with “subtle East flavors”, which is consistent with what I would have guessed.

7 responses to “Structure and function, dorms and culture”

  1. Robb Carr says:

    Intrestingly enough I had been thinking about this myself, and how the two areas have attracted (from what I hear at least) very different groups of people. So I load up google earth and begin to explore the (slightly outdated) satellite photos of MIT. After looking around for a while I reached remarkebly similar conclusions, it is obviously different from an overhead perspective. However east campus definetly appears to be more busy and “connected” in comparison to west.

  2. madmatt says:

    kchen – perhaps you’re thinking of the architectural mantra “Form follows function”? It was coined by architect Louis Sullivan, who for a brief time was a student at MIT. Relatedly, I think I once did a paper on how dorm structure influences individual house culture, and it was a common discussion topic around the time of the construction on Simmons Hall. Nice entry, Jessie…

  3. kchen says:

    Woah… I didn’t know that the structure and function thing was that common — I learned it as “structure is related to function” though, and had it repeatedly emphasized in my class. Neither of them gets that many Google hits.

    I think there was another axiom, but I don’t quite remember what it was — something like “a [foo] is a [foo] is a [foo].”

    Interesting analysis — I haven’t really thought about it as thoroughly. I like the analogy smile

  4. zoogies says:

    An intruiging question to ponder: what shall become of young Simmons hall? To whom will the Child pledge?…in the great struggle ‘tween East and West, I sense that the Young One will yet play a great part in the next chapter.

  5. Talia says:

    a place you can imagine the Ramones living if they’d been MIT students

    rock, yo. that’s a really hilarious description of the haus.

    also, i now feel like i need to acquire a leather jacket with a studded collar. i ain’t spikin my hair, tho. smile

  6. Isabel says:

    hmm, you’ve got a point here. I’d had some of these ideas — EC attracting the type of people who like to build things because the building is so old that nobody cares what people to do it, for example — but this fleshes out a lot of what were only vague feelings for me. The west side always felt sort of “suburban” to me.

    I’m trying to imagine a world in which the current east-side population was transplanted to the current west-side buildings, and vice versa. (ignore the fact that the west side is much *larger* than the east side.) and it just seems like it wouldn’t work.