Pei designed the 21-story Green Center for Earth Sciences for MIT, his college alma mater. It was his first paid commission (undertaken while still at Webb & Knapp), the first building contract he ever negotiated, his first true client-architect relationship, and the first building executed by Pei without an associate architect – the first time he and his team were completely on their own without the protection of Zeckendorf’s corporate umbrella.
Green Center was also MIT’s first architectural concrete building. There was serious concern about the choice of materials, but Pei convinced the administration that he could produce concrete to complement the color, texture, and restrained classicism of the limestone campus. The school honored its time-honored experimental tradition and allowed Pei to continue his concrete explorations (just then bearing fruit in low-cost housing projects at Kips Bay and Hyde Park). Green Center represented state-of-the-art concrete technology in the mid-1960s.
Although MIT wanted a low-rise building in keeping with its long-established development pattern, Pei argued that a tall building would satisfy programmatic requirements while keeping valuable land open near the campus center. He remembered overlooking the site from his fifth-floor room in a nearby dormitory. What had been “a big muddy field” now had the potential to unify a new part of the campus. A tower, Pei explained, would give focus to the then-formless area and gather disparate buildings into an organized composition, like a flagpole in a square. At 325 feet high, the variance-requiring tower was the tallest in Cambridge. It created a new skyline identity beyond the iconic dome that had defined MIT for nearly a half-century and paved the way for future high-rise buildings.
Green Center was an enormous opportunity for Pei, but still burdened by his responsibilities at Webb & Knapp and “not able to think freely,” he largely delegated the project to Araldo Cossutta, a Harvard-trained architect who had worked with Le Corbusier before joining Webb & Knapp in 1956. Cossutta designed the building as a long-span structure supported at either end by two enormous columns. Each floor was effectively a bridge, post-tensioned, with elliptical windows that varied in size according to load, the largest in the middle and the smallest at the ends – a clear structural expression but very difficult and costly to build. When the job went out for bid and came back significantly over budget, an embarrassed I.M. Pei redesigned the building with regularized and squared windows and introduced two additional structural columns to remove the long-span aspect. The result was somewhat more conventional but significantly more affordable. (Pei would revisit long span structure at Pan Pacific and also Wilmington Tower).
Other problems were encountered, not least ground floor wind pressures that made it difficult to open the door into and out of the building. MIT nonetheless remained steadfast in its support of Pei. Pietro Belluschi, Dean of MIT’s School of Architecture since 1951, had encouraged Pei to leave Webb & Knapp and was instrumental in his first outside commission. Working with MIT’s newly formed campus planning office, Belluschi suggested that top architects be given discrete parts of the campus to individually shape, and recommended Pei for a large area east of the campus core. Green Center was the first of three buildings that he would design in a related whole, including Dreyfus Chemistry Building (1970) and Landau Chemical Engineering Building (1976). In 1986, Pei added a fourth building, the MIT Arts & Media Center, on axis across the street in the developing East Campus.
In a connective pattern that ran throughout Pei’s career, his buildings and clients very frequently led to future commissions. MIT alumnus Cecil Green, patron of the Earth Science Building, co-founded Texas Instruments in 1951 with Erik Jonsson and Eugene McDermott. Jonsson, mayor of Dallas, met Pei at the opening of the Green Center in 1964, and two years later commissioned him to design Dallas City Hall. McDermott funded his namesake lecture hall on the raised first floor of Green Center and the courtyard on which it fronts; later, his wife and daughter memorialized him with the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall in the Pei-designed Meyerson Symphony Center. Another important link was Pietro Belluschi, who went on to recommend Pei for at least a half-dozen other projects.
In 1965, Green Center was awarded the Harleston Parker Medal by the Boston Society of Architects and a Merit Award (for McDermott Court) from the American Society of Landscape Architects in 1969.
Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; Araldo Cossutta, Design Architect
I. M. Pei & Associates