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Ralph Landau Chemical Engineering Building, MIT

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The third of four buildings by I.M. Pei at MIT, Landau Chemical Engineering Building celebrates the school’s tradition of innovation, as it was MIT that first introduced chemical engineering as an academic discipline in 1888. The building consolidated teaching spaces and research laboratories for the first time in decades.

Although some see a connection with the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, which was under construction at the time, Landau is actually a direct response to its triangular site at the intersection of two grids: one orthogonal (aligned with the main campus buildings and Massachusetts Avenue) and the other rotated 30 degrees (parallel to the angled course of Main Street). The building’s sharp prow fronts onto Ames Street, pointing the way to the newly developing East Campus where, several years later, Pei would design his final structure at MIT: Wiesner/Arts & Media Center, completed in 1984.

Site plan of Pei buildings at MIT; Landau Building, dark gray / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Respecting the height of its neighbors, the 7-story building (2 underground) continues the formal language of Pei’s two earlier buildings (Green Center for Earth Science and Dreyfus Chemistry Building) with buff-colored cast-in-place architectural concrete, board-formed and lightly sandblasted. All three buildings in the complex facilitate pedestrian connections. Carved into Landau’s prow is a 2-story entrance portico that opens on the ground to the adjacent Biology Building (and now links to it with a 3rd-floor bridge). At the opposite/broad end, a multi-level bridge connects Landau to the four lower stories of its neighbor. The building’s exterior paving expands on the south into a small plaza and serves as the base of Louis Nevelson’s Transparent Horizon. Among the first pieces funded by MIT’s “Percent for Art” program, the 21-foot-high black Cort-ten steel sculpture was installed in 1975 before completion of the building the following year.