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Thread: Icon or Eyesore?

  1. #1

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    Icon or Eyesore?

    Restoring/Renovating/Reusing Mid-20th Century Modern Buildings


    Part 1

    By Leland Cott and Henry Moss

    Friday, June 22, 2012 8:00 am

    Modernist buildings have been under attack in the U.S. for years now. We’re reminded of this fact every day as our team at Bruner/Cott & Associates works to keep an entire period of architecture from being lost in Boston, our hometown.


    Holyoke Center, Harvard University (Josep Lluis Sert, completed 1961)
    Photo by Bruner/Cott

    News of the recent thwarted attempt—for the moment, at least—to demolish Paul Rudolph’s Brutalist masterwork, the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York, underscored for us the fact that important works of mid-twentieth century modern building design is, often, only one vote away from oblivion.

    We consider ourselves pioneers in adaptive use and aficionados of modernism, so we understand the plusses and minuses of these buildings and how to turn them to current user advantage. Therefore, for us, this trend toward destruction is particularly painful to watch. For the past quarter of a century, we have worked to repair, enhance, and extend the use of this architecture, trying to, in our own way, stem the tide of threat. But the reasons for this tendency to destroy modernism are abundantly clear to us.


    Peabody Terrace, Harvard University (Josep Lluis Sert, completed 1963),
    view from campus, photo by Steve Rosenthal

    It’s obvious that Americans have never loved modern architecture in the same way we adore attempts at twentieth century colonial or Georgian revival. So, we are more apt to want to remove modernism rather than repair it. In addition to our emotional difficulties with protecting good mid-twentieth century buildings, there are also technical difficulties. But most people don’t stop to intellectualize these—they just find most of these buildings unsightly and ugly. In this hostile context, as these buildings age or deteriorate from lack of maintenance, it becomes easy to argue for their removal. We have found this to be particularly evident with cast-in-place or pre-cast concrete buildings of the 1960s and 70s. Informed by the architectural press, an unconvinced public hurls back the term “Brutalist” as if it were an enemy weapon.


    Peabody Terrace, Harvard University (Josep Lluis Sert, completed 1963),
    looking west down the Charles River, photo by Steve Rosenthal

    Examples of Brutalist design are present throughout most of our fifty states, but it is in New England and particularly in Boston, where these aggressive concrete buildings are sufficiently plentiful to be considered a local vernacular. Outstanding examples of this muscular style abound throughout the city, touching all people in walks of life. Public sector exemplars include Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles’s (now Kallmann McKinnell & Wood, or KMW) Boston City Hall (1969), Paul Rudolph’s incomplete Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center (1966-1971), and the I.M.Pei /Araldo Cossutta Christian Science Center (1968-1974). MIT has early examples of related buildings by Pei and Eduardo Catalano. Josep Lluis Sert’s work is prominent at Boston University, Harvard, and MIT. At Boston University, Sert’s five-building central campus group, begun in 1962, with its School of Law, Law Library, and undergraduate commons, continues to be the iconic visual marker for its campus along the Charles River. Harvard has four major Sert buildings: Holyoke Center (1958-1965), the Undergraduate Science Center (1969-1972), the Center for the Study of World Religions (1959-1961), and the Peabody Terrace Apartments (1962–64). We have worked on or will be working on three of these projects.


    Stratton Student Center, MIT (Eduardo Catalano, completed 1968)
    Bruner/Cott renovated exterior (1988), photo by Bruner/Cott

    Comparable but derivative building designs began to proliferate and remained popular throughout the 1960s and 70s in our city and beyond. These buildings are now approaching their senior years, and most are showing problems that are judged or misjudged as being difficult and costly to mitigate.

    The repair and maintenance of mid-twentieth century architecture produces difficult and worsening problems for owners and users of its major buildings nationwide. Masonry and concrete deterioration, un-insulated curtain walls, glazing failures, and vulnerability to rocketing energy costs are characteristic shortcomings of this generation of modern buildings. Structural concrete has its own accelerating inventory of difficulties. Ineffective exterior envelope designs and construction has resulted in poor thermal performance, unsustainable levels of energy consumption, and reduced occupant comfort.


    Boston University School of Law (Josep Lluis Sert, completed 1964),
    view across the Charles River from Cambridge, photo by Bruner/Cott

    As they approach fifty years of age, many of these buildings are being judged worthy of pristine preservation, making the acceptable solutions of today less condoned. One certain outcome is that the preservation criteria that were appropriate for craft-laden buildings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries need to be carefully re-evaluated for their mid-century modern successors.

    Leland Cott, FAIA, LEED, is a founding principal of Bruner/Cott & Associates, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, architecture and planning firm. Henry Moss, AIA, LEED, is a preservation expert and principal at the firm. This is the first in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Bruner/Cott’s restoration team that will focus on the challenges and solutions for converting, rehabilitating, or reusing mid-century buildings. Upcoming posts will explore issues associated with this conservation, drawing on the firm’s long-term experience working on the repair, enhancement, and continued use of this architecture. Mini-case studies of buildings will include the MIT Stratton Student Center by Eduardo Catalano; Harvard University’s Peabody Terrace Apartments and Holyoke Center and its Gund Hall for the Graduate School of Design by John Andrews; and Boston University’s School of Law and Law Library. Design and technical problems associated with these projects as well as user/owner issues inherent to mid-century modern design will be explored.

  2. #2

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    Part 2: Stakeholder Equilibrium

    By Leland Cott

    Wednesday, July 11, 2012 8:00 am

    The sleek structures of the International Style, symbols of corporate America’s innovative modernity, are turning 50. These buildings are favored by the real estate community and accepted by the public. But the same is not true for the architecturally aggressive Brutalist style of the 1960s and ’70s, more typically understood as symbols of America’s institutional durability. At the time they were designed and constructed, colleges and universities—as well as municipal, state, and federal governments–viewed poured-in-place concrete as a symbol of permanence and institutional longevity. The sculptural possibilities of the material seemed unlimited for a new generation of designers, but the public’s perception of concrete as an unfriendly architectural finish has outlasted its once perceived aesthetic benefits. Today, there are escalating appeals for the demolition and removal of many of these buildings, and battle lines have been drawn between building owners, occupants, and preservationists. We think these buildings are important legacies of an era, so we’re looking for ways to find effective design solutions acceptable to all stakeholders, transforming these “out-of-date” structures into useful, up-to-date, state-of-the-art environments.


    Peabody Terrace at Harvard, University (Josep Lluis Sert, completed 1963), exterior view and concrete restoration.
    Photos by Steve Rosenthal, Bruner/Cott

    Here are the key issues we typically face and examples of how we address them:

    Building owner/clients frequently find themselves overwhelmed with the ongoing maintenance and operations difficulties inherent in their 1960s and ’70s Brutalist buildings. Ironically, in New England, where we do most of our work, concrete has not proven to be durable, and the physical erosion of this material seems to further erode support for the building style itself. This was the case at Harvard University’s Peabody Terrace Apartments, where we carried out extensive concrete restoration efforts in 1995 to cover exposed reinforcing rods and to patch spalling (material fragments). The first stage of our work at the Boston University (BU) School of Law this summer (designed by Josep Lluis Sert) will be of a similar nature to prevent spalling concrete from falling to the ground.

    Building users and tenants complain of the inflexibility inherent in a concrete building in which walls and columns are not easily removed or replaced to allow for the reallocation of space for growing and changing academic environments. At MIT in 1988, we renovated the Stratton Student Center, removing over 300 tons of concrete in the process in order to make the interior spaces flow more evenly and to “unclog” the central atrium space. At the BU School of Law, we are designing a new classroom building alongside its existing tower to achieve the additional space required for the growth of the school. User discomfort resulting from obsolete HVAC systems and inadequate 1960s building envelope technology remains a source of ongoing occupant complaint, one that we are working to solve in this particular project now.

    Preservationists prefer to see restoration efforts that are faithful to the original building fabric, but they appear to be more receptive to architectural additions as a necessary compromise to save original structures.


    Boston University School of Law (Josep Lluis Sert, completed 1964), Law Tower exterior and concrete spalling. Photos by Bruner/Cott

    We feel that architects willing to step into the fray to mitigate the differences among building owners, users, and preservationists can be effective mediators in what is about to become a ubiquitous discussion. Our next post will begin to explore these issues in more detail.



    Stratton Student Center at MIT (Eduardo Catalano, completed 1968), exterior today; interior concrete removal and after renovation. Photos by Bruner/Cott

    Modernist Buildings to Watch: California Home + Design has included Boston City Hall on its latest list of “25 Buildings to Demolish Right Now.” Other Brutalist buildings on that list include the FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC, and the Denver Public Library.

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    Part 3: The Preservationist Perspective

    By Henry Moss, AIA

    Tuesday, July 31, 2012 8:00 am

    Our last post, “Stakeholder Equilibrium,” identified the historic preservation community as a critical voice in the debate about whether and how to reuse mid-twentieth century modern buildings. But today we face the challenge of a divided voice among preservationists: There are those who have a long-held reverence of original materials and those who recognize this way of thinking as unrealistic for many modern buildings.

    The preservation ethic that has guided American and European architects regarding the repair, restoration, and adaptive reuse of historic buildings was originally derived from principles of fine arts conservators. William Morris, the English artist and textile designer, was an originator of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB). The society was formed in the Victorian period as a reaction to the demolition of Gothic church interiors to make way for the new. Morris his fellow Arts and Crafts advocates wanted to protect and conserve authentic, original, historic material with all of its inherent craftsmanship and association with lives past intact. Their fundamental credo was to “repair rather than replace.” The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, established in the wake of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, is a direct product of this Victorian preservation ethic, almost universally applied to craft-laden masonry and wooden structures from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


    Single-glazed curtain wall, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Gund Hall (John Andrews, completed 1969).
    Photo by Bruner/Cott.


    Neoprene gasket glazing system cannot be recreated to support insulated glazing units.
    Custom extrusions for aluminum curtain wall cap pieces replicate sizes, shadow lines, and mitered intersections.
    Photo by Bruner/Cott.

    But “craft” is not what mid-twentieth century modern architecture is about. Post-World War II design and construction eagerly adopted both the pretense and the practice of “industrialized” building. The term “Brutalism,” which references beton brut, the French term for raw concrete, defined a style in which both cast-in-place and precast concrete could be structural materials that remained exposed for both interior and exterior finishes. This approach announced a new aesthetic in which labor-intensive decorative finishes and materials associated with traditional architectural styles were summarily dismissed. The fundamental industrial precept of the style drove a deep wedge between popular taste and contemporary architecture.

    As a consequence, the preservation community is often split about whether unpopular, poorly performing, mid-twentieth century modern buildings should be protected at all and, if we keep them, what criteria for the treatment of the original building ought to apply. Precast elements integrated into monolithic concrete building exteriors, such as single-glazed steel windows, may be original, but they are no longer seen as practical or environmentally responsible. Retaining them can pose insurmountable physical and financial problems when the buildings are required to meet today’s standards of being weather-tight and energy efficient.

    The owners and occupants of Brutalist buildings are caught in the dilemma created by the original material vs original appearance debate. For instance, at Josep Lluis Sert’s Boston University School of Law Tower, we recognized early on that the root cause of precast concrete failures is when the reinforcing steel is too near to surfaces exposed to rain. Out of 700 precast concrete fins on the Sert building, about 100 of them have major cracks and large areas of lost and degraded concrete. If we repair these elements in situ, we will not be able to remedy the fundamentally defective placement of reinforcing steel and face the same failures soon after the repairs.


    Typical assembly of single-glazed steel windows, opaque sheet steel vent panels,
    and precast fins in the uninsulated exterior envelope of Boston University’s School of Law, (Josep Lluis Sert, completed 1964).
    Photo by Bruner/Cott.


    One of 100 out of 700 precast fins where rebar placement caused loss of concrete.
    In situ repair cannot provide the same longevity as a new precast fin.
    Photo by Bruner/Cott.

    As renowned buildings of the mid-twentieth century cross the 50-year threshold, attempts to rehabilitate them will likely be caught between the conflicting requirements of energy-related building codes and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. In practice, many preservation agencies and advocacy groups have already shifted from the Secretary of the Interior’s-derived conservation ethic to a more complex evaluation of costs and benefits—cultural, ecological, and financial. And there is a growing acceptance of using replacement elements that match the original appearance of windows, precast concrete, and other sensitive building assemblies rather than replicating them. While good preservation practice will continue to seek to retain original materials and assemblies where possible, the balance is likely to shift toward replacement as more mid-twentieth century buildings reach the need for renewal.


    Aluminum window wall replacement of steel window assembly that had rusted beyond reasonable repair over 35 years.
    Harvard Married Student Housing, Peabody Terrace (Josep Lluis Sert, completed 1963).
    Photo by Bruner/Cott.

    The anomaly of treating industrially produced buildings as if they were handcrafted has begun to be acknowledged by federal, state, and local historic commissions, which are demonstrating a flexibility on specific projects, though the published Secretary the of Interior’s guidelines remain in place. This increases the burden of risk for institutional owners. It also acts as silent deterrent to reinvestment in our Brutalist building stock. Next time we’ll explore the roles building owners and clients have in saving these buildings.

  4. #4

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    Comments can be viewed by clicking on the Metropolis banner in post #1.

  5. #5

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    i like the design of the mit student center

    unfortunately, the concrete exterior has not aged well

  6. #6

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    For some reason the pictures above make me think about the famous Divis Flats in Belfast and many structures in the purpose built city of Milton Keynes. I'm not a fan.

    Square, pointed concrete edges and surfaces, especially those created in the days before high strength concrete, corrosion inhibitors, sealers and epoxy coated rebar have, it appears, a lifespan of about 50 years. No one understood or analysed water/cement ratios, aggregate types or the modulus of elasticity back in the 50s and 60s. They thought concrete would last forever as there was little evidence to the contrary.

    Though not always the ugliest buildings to look at, I'm not in favor of spending fortunes to maintain these hulks.

  7. #7
    Crabby airline hostess - stache's Avatar
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    Probably best to do a cost analysis per building to see if it is cheaper to repair or replace, unless the building has architectural merit.

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