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Polaroid, Kendall Square

Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid, asked Pei to design a new corporate headquarters in Kendall Square, a technology hub near MIT, where Polaroid had been based since the early 1960s. It was Pei’s second project for Polaroid in two years. The 45-story tower would have been the tallest in Cambridge, just as Pei’s nearby Earth Sciences Building had been upon completion in 1964.

The scheme was one of a series of early cylindrical towers that Pei designed, but never built, together with the Helix and the Hyperboloid. As in the latter, thin floor plates are spanned between a rigid core and the building’s structural skin. The steel exoskeleton distributes loads equally over the entire perimeter so interiors are column-free. And because all of the steel members are small, there was no need for oversized supports, making the tower easier and less expensive to build than conventional construction. Inspiration for the lattice-like design came from industrial oil storage tanks where exposed steel ribs on the outside of the tank made for a straightforward expression of structure. Not quite ten years later, Pei would use a related system for the skylight of the East Building, National Gallery of Art.

Pei worked on the project with Yann Weymouth, a recent graduate of MIT, who had submitted a similarly triangulated tower for his senior thesis, channeling loads to the perimeter, rather than relying on the core for wind resistance. Why the Kendall Square scheme wasn’t executed is unknown, but fireproofing the exposed steel structure would have presented a very big challenge and would have significantly impacted the design.


Perimeter structure / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Partner; Yann Weymouth, Design Architect
I.M. Pei & Partners