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MIT to launch new design academy this fall

The MIT Morningside Academy for Design aims to address the ‘problems that communities are facing,’ said founding director John Ochsendorf

An aerial view of MIT's campus. The Metropolitan Warehouse, the large brick building at center right, will house the new MIT Morningside Academy for Design.AboveSummit, Christopher Harting

Over the course of more than 150 years, countless groundbreaking designs have emerged from Massachusetts Institute of Technology: the first completely solar-powered house, PET scans, and a way to track COVID-19 levels in waste water.

Now, with the new MIT Morningside Academy for Design slated to open this September, the prestigious university hopes to create a hub of resources for the next generation of designers, integrating areas of study such as engineering and architecture in the process.

The hope is for the academy to offer opportunities and programming both for students and for the general public, said John Ochsendorf, a professor of architecture and of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, who will serve as the academy’s founding director.

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“Design exists across all of MIT, but it exists in different formats and units that don’t often talk to each other,” said Ochsendorf. “One of our core goals is to elevate and connect and amplify the good work in design that is already happening across every corner of MIT.”

The academy, which will be housed in the School of Architecture and Planning, is the result of a $100 million gift from the Morningside Foundation, the charity of the T.H. Chan family.

The idea for a dedicated design academy, Ochsendorf said, began in September of 2020 with a charge from the deans of the School of Architecture and Planning and the School of Engineering to evaluate how MIT might strengthen its design offerings. Ochsendorf, along with associate dean of the School of Engineering, Maria Yang (now the academy’s associate director), convened 18 other design-focused faculty and staff members to come up with “a wish list,” Ochsendorf said. One of the recommendations, published in April of 2021, was to establish a design center.

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“We were thinking big ideas about how we could support design education and research,” said Ochsendorf. “Sometimes dreams come true.”

The concept of design is left intentionally open-ended, since it “sometimes requires making leaps between unrelated disciplines to make a breakthrough,” Ochsendorf said. He pointed to Biobot Analytics, the Cambridge startup melding urban planning and epidemiology to analyze sewage samples for COVID-19 levels, as an example of the work the academy is looking to support.

“This is really going to give us a platform to connect with the world around problems that communities are facing,” he said. “How do we help support the students who want to develop their design ideas and deploy them in the world?”

At the academy, Ochsendorf envisions new design-centric programming, symposia, conferences, invited speakers, designers in residence, and graduate and postdoctoral fellowships. He also hopes to mount public exhibitions and K-12 outreach. “It’s certainly in our aspirations in the future to offer degrees, but it isn’t part of the day one,” he said.

Part of the donation from the Morningside Foundation will go toward renovating the Metropolitan Warehouse, which will be the new home of the academy and the Department of Architecture.

MIT's Metropolitan Warehouse, currently under renovation, will be the new home for the new Morningside Academy for Design. David L Ryan/Globe Staff/file

While the academy will be interdisciplinary across MIT’s five schools, the focus is on the School of Architecture and Planning and the School of Engineering, Ochsendorf said.

Ochsendorf said he hopes the academy will attract students from all over the world who are interested in design work. “Whether it’s climate change or public health or livable neighborhoods or transportation and mobility — any of these challenges, we need designers to tackle them,” he said.

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Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.