The chapel's altar with metal sculpture by Harry Bertoia
MIT’s Kresge Auditorium and chapel officially opened in 1955 during a “Fortnight Festival” of events (extending from April 30 to May 14). The program included lectures, concerts, a debate between teams from Harvard and MIT about the merits of liberal arts versus technical education, plays in the Little Theater, and a dueling scene from Cyrano de Bergerac, in addition to the formal dedication exercises. Aaron Copland’s “Canticle of Freedom,” commissioned by MIT for the occasion, premiered during the celebrations. Sebastian S. Kresge, founder of Kresge Stores and the Kresge Foundation, provided funding for the buildings in the hope that they would serve as a nexus for MIT’s social, cultural, and religious life.
Architect Eero Saarinen, who designed both buildings in the complex, sparked controversies because of his radical departure from the classical pattern employed by Welles Bosworth when MIT relocated from Boston to Cambridge in 1916. An alumnus, Class of 1928, complained to MIT President James Killian that the new additions to the campus were “so far from the classic architecture of the original buildings as to be approaching the bizarre.” Killian wrote back: “There are, of course, deep differences in architectural philosophy today, and one can find little agreement as to what is appropriate and beautiful…It is our general attitude that…M.I.T. should be forward-looking in its architecture as well as in its research and education…”
Saarinen expressed his own concepts about the auditorium/chapel complex in the June 1955 issue of Technology Review. In particular, he defended his designs against the criticism that the auditorium had not been planned for optimal acoustical advantage and that the cylindrically shaped chapel had no windows. Acoustics, he explained were a “modifying factor” for any auditorium, but “not a science with the authority to impose a basic shape.” A building’s form must be “expressive of a larger purpose” and have a “meaningful relation to its site and its neighbors.” The chapel’s windowless cylinder “implied the self-contained, inward-feeling which was desirable” for a place of worship. Its undulating interior walls promoted good acoustics as well as an “enclosed feeling.” The arches supporting the structure from a water-filled moat allowed a “soft, mysterious secondary light” to serve as “a foil to the light coming from directly above the altar.”
Photographs of Kresge Auditorium and the chapel under construction
The Records of the Office of the President, 1930-1959 (AC 4) contain records relating to the building of the MIT chapel and Kresge Auditorium. These records, as well as published articles, reports, and images concerning the buildings’ construction, dedication, and use, are available for use in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, Room 14N-118.
MIT Institute Archives