Saving and Reimagining Modern Academic Buildings


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By Leland Cott, FAIA
Founding Principal, Bruner/Cott & Associates

My inspiring encounters with some of modernism’s masters while an architecture student at Pratt Institute and the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the 1960s shaped my early practice and laid the groundwork for our firm’s work today. Philip Johnson invited us to occasional evening talks at his New Canaan residence and project charrettes in his office. Paul Rudolph gave us and our professor Sybil Moholy-Nagy an animated tour of his new Art and Architecture building at Yale; and Josep Lluis Sert, dean of Harvard GSD, took us on site visits to his recently completed works there and at Boston University, projects my firm would renew decades later.
A newly created stair in MIT’s Stratton Student Center. Credit: Bruner/Cott 
Observing these architects and others at work, I absorbed their spirit, passion, and deeply ingrained mission to make the world a better place through thoughtful building design and socially conscious planning. These experiences greatly influenced me as a young architect, and later, in the development of our firm’s practice. Now, fifty years later, the academic buildings of these mid-century masters surround us here in Boston and in other locales. Many are among their best-known works…and many are at significant risk. It is one of our firm’s proud missions to save these irreplaceable structures and transform them for a new century of use.
Over the past two decades, our firm has learned that the greatest challenge to saving these buildings is proving their worth. This is particularly difficult if there have been decades of neglect or constituent resentment toward the modernist style and the technical or functional difficulties that are embedded in it. Recent points in example: after a long court battle, the complete demolition of Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center building in Goshen, New York, was avoided in favor of a partial demolition and reconstruction, but Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago was completely lost after a similar clash of intentions. The matter of additions to modern buildings contributes another layer to this controversy. Detractors at Dartmouth College recently claimed that Todd Williams and Billie Tsien’s design for the renovation and addition to the 1985 Hood Museum violates Charles Moore’s original design intent. Tsien has stated that she and Williams are “doing a lot to take care of his [Moore’s] legacy” in the project: “It’s not keeping it exactly the same but it’s keeping it alive.”
Today, all restorations of and interventions on modernist buildings lucky enough to survive must imbue our twenty-first century values of community, functionality, and environmental sensitivity to ensure their longevity. Yet these issues are viewed differently by the stakeholders of any given project, and all must come to consensus for a project to proceed, presenting another challenge to preservation success…
  • The first stakeholder, the building owner, is concerned with rising operating and maintenance costs and is therefore aware of the difficulty involved in providing an occupyable modernist building with windows that have rusted frames and are energy inefficient, likely leak rain and wind-driven snow, and are, more often than not, are single glazed units. The building’s skin, curtain wall, or monolithic Brutalist concrete is famously thermally inefficient because it is usually un-insulated, leading to high energy costs and low occupant comfort.
  • The second stakeholder, the user-occupant, must manage their day-to-day business at hand and is entitled by law to “quiet enjoyment of the premises” and a functional and code compliant place to conduct their business, which, in the case of our firm’s work, is academic and institutional. 
  • The third group of stakeholders comprises the municipal and state regulatory agencies and the preservation advocacy community. Each of these groups has its own set of priorities that may differ from those of the building owner, users, or the architect. 
  • The fourth stakeholder is the architect and design team, whose primary responsibility is to orchestrate the process, mediate differences among the stakeholders, and finally, to design a preservation/rehabilitation scheme for the project that sufficiently modernizes the premises to current day standards while being mindful of the preservation and esthetic standards in play.
Navigating these groups and steering them toward agreement is essential to ensuring that saving a modern structure moves forward. Following are four examples of how we have accomplished this goal and the projects that resulted.
Boston University School of Law: Josep Lluis Sert’s Tower on the Charles River Basin
As Tsien pointed out, the idea of “keeping it alive” was very much in my mind when I first met with stakeholders of Boston University’s administration who, along its School of Law faculty, had exhausted their options for renovation and reuse of the iconic 265-foot Sert tower on their Charles River campus.
Boston University School of Law in the 1960s. Credit: Boston University Archives
The School of Law faculty and administrators—the users—who for the past two decades had considered relocation, were continually frustrated by the inefficiency of the tower’s small floor plates, which had forced them into a vertically configured learning facility lacking large social spaces. Chronic traffic jams in the stairwells and at its small elevators also impeded movement between classes. Owner-related deferred maintenance of the core components of the tower had reached a critical level as a result of this frustration. Rather than viewing Sert’s tower as the work of a modernist genius, they had come to resent its many functional shortcomings, a feeling that was exacerbated by its harsh Brutalist esthetic.
Even though I, and others in our office, appreciated and admired Sert’s tower as architecture and sculpture, its inadequacies and failings as a building were obvious to us. We sympathized with those who felt victimized by it. By maintaining a neutral position while also explicating our previous experience with Sert’s work, were able to influence the university and the School of Law to move forward with a comprehensive renovation of the tower and the construction of a new classroom building at its base.
2015 renovation and addition to Boston University School of Law. Credit: Richard Mandelkorn
Our proposal made compelling economic and practical sense to all involved. For the university, the construction of a single new building was shown to be less expensive than the construction of a new law school facility. Furthermore, the Boston zoning code would no longer have permitted the existing height and FAR extant on the site, making the existing “grandfathered” tower a newly appreciated and very valuable, asset. Our scheme also made sense to the School of Law because the construction of a new six-story classroom building at the tower’s base with its own bank of new elevators would provide physical continuity between the tower and the new building, enabling the desired large floor plates. The plan also involved completely new HVAC, IT, and A/V systems throughout the project, transforming it to a state of the art facility. Our design for the renovation of the tower aimed to transform the upper floors into administrative functions and faculty offices with unrivaled views to the downtown and the Charles River basin, likely the best of any law school in the country.
Restoring and improving the facade of the tower was the backbone of our larger scheme. Working with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger to understand and create solutions, we devised a comprehensive preservation strategy that included the replacement and protection of damaged reinforcing, surface damaged, and spalled concrete, broken sills, scuppers and fins. The facade’s technical challenges were many. Its cast-in-place concrete frame and its precast panels were spalling, exposing the reinforcing bars. Its deteriorated windows were leaking and no longer able to keep rain or snow out of its classrooms. While mid-century architects appreciated the new creative freedom they achieved from cast-in-place concrete, they do not appear to have understood the susceptibility of it to water penetration at surface imperfections such as cold joints or surface cracks created by insufficient cover for reinforcing steel; nor were they sufficiently knowledgeable about the science of concrete. Over time, in the presence of moisture, an alkali-silica reaction occurs in it, between the cement and the silica found in commonly used aggregates, causing aggregate expansion that leads to spalling and loss of strength. This “alkali-silica reaction” is now understood to cause serious structural problems in some concrete. Carbonation—another problem created by the presence of high levels of moisture in the material—occurs when carbon dioxide dissolves in water and destroys the ferric hydroxide layer protecting reinforcing steel against corrosion.
The new classroom structure—the Sumner M. Redstone Building—was constructed on the open courtyard at the base of the tower. By doing so, we sacrificed some of the open space that was part of Sert’s composition but felt justified in doing so because that space was often in shadow, windswept, and inhospitable. Instead, we gained new indoor gathering spaces, including a café overlooking the Charles River and a two-story entry atrium that serves as an entry lobby for the School of Law and a “living room” for the university.
Now complete and fully occupied, the project has been judged an overwhelming success by BU and the preservation community. Our firm takes great pride knowing we have been able to restore Sert’s reputation at the university and, by reimagining his seminal tower, have likely made it better than it has ever been.
Left: Boston University School of Law’s new Redstone Building entry with tower undergoing renovation. Right: Renovated tower and entry plaza. Credit: Richard Mandelkorn
Harvard University Peabody Terrace Housing: Josep Lluis Sert’s Student Residences
The 1993 renovation and preservation of Harvard’s Peabody Terrace Housing (primarily for graduate students, particularly married students and their families) was our first experience with the work of Sert, begun ten years after his death. At the start of our interview for the project, the Harvard administration’s representative surprised me with a series of very negative comments about “these problematic buildings.” Taken aback, I set aside my presentation notes and instead gave a brief talk on the importance of Sert’s housing and its place in the canon of twentieth-century multi-family housing complexes. This approach resulted in the project’s commission, the scope of which was described in by John Morris Dixon in Progressive Architecture’s June 1994 “Peabody Terrace, Yesterday's Paradigm, Today's Problem” and later by Docomomo US' President Theodore H.M. Prudon in The Preservation of Modern Architecture (2008, John Wiley & Sons).
Harvard University’s Peabody Terrace in the 1960s. Credit: Phokion Karas, from Jose Luis Sert: Architecture, City Planning, Urban Design, published by Frederick A. Praeger, 1967
We found Peabody Terrace in a serious state of disrepair thirty years after its construction. Its entire building envelope—concrete, window glazing and frames—was failing. Additionally, Sert’s efficiently designed but small dwelling units were no longer competitive with the Cambridge rental market, resulting in a vacancy rate that was unacceptable to the university. 
The Peabody Terrace project represented our first attempt to restore and patch failing concrete, an effort far more intuitive than our recent work at the BU School of Law, because much less was known about the science of concrete repair at the time. Cold joints due to poor vibration protocols during the 1962 construction pours and delayed concrete placement had led to serious spalling, surface deterioration, and rusted exposed reinforcing steel throughout the 495 unit complex. Some concrete was further deteriorated by the unfortunate use of epoxy resins for emergency repairs. Nevertheless, we were able to devise a comprehensive testing and repair program that enabled us to test various mixes and colors of concrete to best match the host material.  
Due to the rusted condition of the original Hopes steel window assemblies, it was an easy decision to install new insulated glass in new thermally broken aluminum frames. We worked with the window manufacturer to design aluminum replacement assemblies that closely matched Sert’s intended thin steel profile.
A second series of improvements, as important as those made to the exterior, included general upgrades to the apartment’s living spaces, kitchens, and bathrooms. Today, Peabody Terrace has enjoyed a renaissance. The new, expanded kitchens and modernized interiors remain “state of the art” twenty years after the completion of our work.
Harvard University’s Peabody Terrace after renovation, 1996. Credit: Steve Rosenthal
Harvard University’s Peabody Terrace typical kitchen, before and after. Credit: Bruner/Cott and Steve Rosenthal
Gund Hall Conditions Assessment and Renovation: John Andrews’s Harvard Graduate School of Design
Gund Hall was designed by John Andrews in collaboration with Dean Sert in 1972 during a period of major expansion at the GSD. Today, its remains an iconic symbol for the school but is in need of repair including updating many of its aging building systems. Our 2010 design, completed but largely on hold to date, includes a comprehensive upgrade of the building from envelope renovation to space planning for the new Harvard College undergraduate architecture major. In all cases, occupant comfort is a priority.
Harvard University’s Gund Hall, constructed 1972. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The first phase of a complete energy retrofit for the building includes the replacement of all glazing to achieve lower U-values, lower percentages of solar heat gain, and improved visible light transmittance, especially in the large 25,000-square-foot studio space. Secondary trusses at stepped roofs will be strengthened, and obsolete mechanical systems will be replaced. Upon completion of the renovation, the building will be secure in its identity as a period icon, with new efficient and modern mechanical systems throughout.
In 2012, one aspect of the plan was completed—the installation of newly specified studio desks and furnishings, the first replacements since 1972. They were a functional priority for the school and provide a major furniture and spatial design opportunity that clears the way for us to clean up a series of informal studio “improvements” that will allow the beauty of the Andrews interior to show anew when the project is completed in the future.
Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design studio in Gund Hall. Bruner/Cott custom designed new work tables and study spaces. Credit: Richard Mandelkorn
Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Edward Catalano’s Stratton Student Center
MIT was the first of three major Boston area universities to commission our firm to provide mid-century modern preservation and adaptation expertise. In 1987, we began work on an extensive renovation of the Stratton Student Center, originally designed by Eduardo Catalano in 1965. Working with MIT in a participatory planning process, we developed a program response through a university-wide survey to identify the goals of user groups.
MIT’s renovated Stratton Student Center showing newly enclosed (former outdoor) glazed terrace, now a student lounge. Credit: Bruner/Cott
A new three-story atrium forms the core of the revitalized building and allows natural light into the deep floor plan, where more than 300 tons of concrete were removed from the existing structure to build the space. The atrium provides visual and immediate stair connections from the main retail level to second floor dining services and the third floor coffee house, reducing dependence on the building’s elevators.
The building’s renovation comprised a 425-seat main dining room including a new series of balcony spaces, two new kitchens, and a food court-style servery. Conference and dining spaces were added in key locations throughout the Center with associated systems for university-wide catering support. Today, students, faculty, alumni, parents, neighborhood residents, and guests alike make full use of the Center’s informal sunlit lounges and retail spaces.
The restoration, redesign, and reconstruction of these mid-century buildings preserves their historic significance while generating a new kind of energy and enthusiasm for modern architecture. Structures thought to be obsolete have been given new lives. Programmatic uses inhibited by their original designs are now supported and encouraged. And end users praise their transformed functionality.
Boston University’s administration now views the School of Law as a real estate asset rather than a liability: “a cohesive, beautifully designed complex…at a cost that is millions of dollars less than…a new facility…making a significant improvement in the academic and daily student life at our institution.” And its student government president described the “true beauty” of the School of Law project as its “large open spaces…that encourage students to come together to exchange diverse ideas…[building] a stronger community of socially-conscious students and a better class of lawyers.” Peabody Terrace continues to function as Sert intended, one of most beautifully planned housing complexes of the twentieth century. The redesign of Gund Hall’s furnishings has enhanced visibility of the building’s beautiful structure and staircases, generating fresh appreciation for its “great space.” And the substantive concrete removal at MIT Stratton Student Center reduced visual density, clearing the way for the social connectivity that is a mainstay of academic design today.

At Bruner/Cott, we like to think that our work to save and enhance modern academic buildings is doing my mid-century mentors proud, ensuring the future of their work by propelling its relevancy into a new century. 

 MIT Stratton Student Center's Cafe. Credit: Bruner/Cott


Leland Cott, FAIA, LEED AP, Founding Principal of Bruner/Cott & Associates has over 40 years of experience in architecture and urban design. His design expertise is in buildings for educational, multi-occupant residential and commercial use. He is responsible for primary client contact, design and implementation of architecture, interior architecture, and urban design. Leland’s experience and interest in the rehabilitation of mid-20th century modern buildings has led to campus preservation and development plans, lectures, national conference presentations, and a blog series for Metropolis called “Icon or Eyesore?” He was an adjunct professor of Urban Planning at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, where he taught for 17 years; a former Peace Corps Volunteer; a former President of the Boston Society of Architects; and is a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects. Leland holds a Master of Architecture in Urban Design from Harvard University and a Bachelor of Architecture from Pratt Institute.