MIT Theater Arts

Architect:  designLAB architects

Owner:  Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Category: Merit

“This project gives hope and delight and is an example of adaptive reuse that most American cities can implement.” - Jury comment

A 200-seat theater and numerous spaces for dance, design, and experimentation are the hallmarks of the new home for MIT’s Theater Arts Department, which, for decades, has served as the creative counterpart to the school’s highly technical endeavors. Conceived as a continuous studio, programming slides easily between its highly malleable spaces, encouraging a robust exchange of creativity.

As the department outgrew its former home, a repurposed tile factory, it turned to an available industrial building on the periphery of MIT’s Cambridge campus. This new location allowed the design team to craft an identity reflective of the department’s educational approach. The project is a reimagination of the building envelope that both expresses the creative activity inside and retains the texture of the façade. A double-height performance space was inserted into the single-story section of the building, and a new lobby connects it to rehearsal venues, dance studios, and a number of instructional spaces.  

The existing brick shell had been modified throughout the years, and many of its openings had been altered to address shifting needs. The building’s history and character were thoroughly embraced by the school and the team as an asset. Inspired by the works of artists Louise Nevelson and Lawrence Weiner, the team opted to infill the openings and paint the entire façade black to create a unified composition of patchwork brick. New openings were cut to provide views into the interior, and the team relied on wood-veneer resin panels to frame the apertures.    

In line with MIT’s commitment to the pursuit of carbon neutrality, each of its projects is subject to rigorous energy assessments. While most theaters are not known for energy efficiency, this project anticipates LEED Gold certification. High-performance mechanical systems, the reuse of the majority of the existing masonry and steel structure, and LED lighting throughout, including all of the theater’s lighting systems, are among the notable sustainable strategies.

Overall, the project demonstrates the importance of the arts in technical education, and MIT’s theater arts students pursue that discipline with as much vigor as they do applied physics. At first, moving from the heart of campus was a difficult choice, but the department’s new home quickly became an opportunity to activate an underused campus edge. The building is now a beacon that beckons students and audiences, and its architecture stands as a graphic symbol for the department.  

Additional information

Project team

Consultant - Acoustics/AV: Jaffe Holden

Consultant - Code: Commercial Construction Consulting, Inc

Consultant - Cost: KVAssociates

Consultant - Theater: Fisher Dachs Associates

Consultant - Specifications: Kalin Associates

Engineer - Civil: Nitsch Engineering

Engineer - MEP: Vanderweil Engineering

Engineer - Structural: Structures Workshop

General Contractor: Shawmut Design and Construction

Lighting: Sladen Feinstein Integrated Lighting


Judith P. Hoskens, Assoc. AIA, (Chair), Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.  

Malcolm Holzman, FAIA, Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture

Dina Sorensen, Assoc. AIA, Learning Environment Project Designer & Research Liaison

Lawrence W. Speck, FAIA, Page Southerland Page, Inc.

Amy Yurko, AIA, BrainSpaces Inc.

Image credits

MIT Theater Arts Building exterior

Peter Vanderwarker

Scene shop inside MIT Theater Arts

Peter Vanderwarker

Remnant staircase

Peter Vanderwarker

Production meeting in the black box theater

Peter Vanderwarker

MIT Theater Arts Building at night

Peter Vanderwarker