Four Midcentury Landmarks Get a New Lease on Life
Midcentury Modern architecture is admired for its bold forms, clear expression of structure, and experimentation with new technology and materials. But those very same techniques, materials, and formal solutions were often untested and, despite their promise, soon outmoded. For many architects, renovating and restoring buildings of that period has become an important enterprise, since they can be especially prone to deterioration and challenging to adapt to changing needs. Nevertheless, the following case studies show such endeavors can be successful.
The Hall of Science, in Queens, New York, is one example of the sculptural exuberance of many midcentury buildings. Designed by Harrison and Abramovitz Architects for the 1964 World’s Fair, it was conceived as a permanent museum devoted to science and technology. An eggcrate-like reinforced-concrete wall undulates and bends to define a nearly 90-foot-tall volume. Within the wall’s framework, the original architects set more than 5,000 dalle-de-verre panels (approximately 1-inch-thick elements made of concrete with shards of cobalt blue glass cast into them). The result was a darkly luminous environment perfectly suited for the original exhibition, Rendezvous in Space, which featured a film by Frank Capra and space vehicles suspended from the ceiling. Todd Schliemann, a partner at New York–based Ennead, who completed the hall’s restoration in 2015, describes its interior as abstract and almost scaleless, like outer space.
Ennead’s renovation addressed chipping and spalling of the concrete framework that exposed its steel reinforcing, hairline cracks that had formed in many of the dalle-de-verre panels, and water infiltration. To reverse this deterioration, the firm, which had previously expanded the museum in 2004, carefully patched the concrete, refurbished the glass and concrete infill panels, and replaced those deemed beyond repair. As one of the final steps, the team applied a breathable waterproof coating to the exterior surfaces to help ensure that the hall’s newly restored drama would be long lasting. Today it is open for visitors, and hosts an exhibition that focuses on the earth’s diverse natural habitats.
Not all midcentury buildings exhibit the same kind of adventurous and organic forms found at the Hall of Science. Instead, another significant work from this period—Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Laboratories (1961) at the University of Pennsylvania—demonstrates a commitment to order and rigor articulated in brick, concrete, and glass.
Recently designated a National Historic Landmark, Richards is considered the first built statement of Kahn’s philosophy of “served” and “servant” spaces. It consists of four interconnected structures—three “served” towers for labs and one for services—bathrooms, elevators, and mechanical equipment. Exposed concrete Vierendeel trusses provided the primary structure, with ducts and other building systems organized—and visible—through the trusses’ bottom chords. Below this structure, the floors were almost entirely lacking partitions, providing free-flowing space for scientific research and collaboration. Many scholars have noted that Kahn’s model for this open working environment may well have been the architecture studio, says David Fixler, a principal in the Boston office of EYP Architecture & Engineering. His firm created the preservation standards for Richards and performed the first phase of the still-ongoing project. (The Philadelphia office of Atkin Olshin Schade Architects won a competitive bid for the subsequent phases.)
Whatever the source for Kahn’s notions about the best spatial arrangement for medical research, he was misguided.
Not long after occupancy, the scientists began to subdivide their workspaces. And over the years, as their research evolved (along with laboratory ventilation requirements), ductwork, conduits, and other equipment proliferated, extending below the trusses, further impairing Kahn’s clear diagram.
The move that was key to restoring the original architectural vision for Richards was the decision of the project team and the university to convert it from a wet lab for traditional bench science—which has intense ventilation requirements— to a dry lab where computational research would be conducted. This allowed the removal of the tangle of building services that had accrued since the Richards’s completion and the installation of much smaller and more efficient systems, making Kahn’s parti once again dominant.
The windows arguably presented the most daunting technical problem. The oversize single-glazed lites, more than 13 feet wide and 5 feet tall, were in bad shape: creep of the concrete structure had caused their custom-fabricated stainless- steel frames to warp, weakened the gaskets, and left the windows prone to breakage and leaks. Clearly they needed to be replaced, ideally with state-of-the-art glazing. But insulated units would be both too heavy and too thick for the existing frames, which were considered an essential part of Richards’s original fabric. Much like the building itself, “they are elegant, minimal, with a strong character,” says Fixler. The solution was laminated glass, only slightly thicker than the original glazing, with high-performance coatings that address glare. The new windows are coplanar with the exterior wall and “dead flat,” despite the pressure differential between inside and out, he says.
Christopher Williams, a New Haven, Connecticut–based architect, faced many of the same problems as the Richards team in his recent renovation of Greeley Memorial Laboratory, a 24,000-square-foot research facility designed by Paul Rudolph for Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Since its completion in 1959, Greeley had suffered a number of unsympathetic alterations. These included new partitions and a profusion of piping, ducts, and systems for life safety. These changes gave the interior a makeshift, provisional feel and spoiled the expression of the coffered reinforced-concrete ceiling slab and the distinctive Y-shaped columns that support it.
Luckily, the scientists occupying Greeley increasingly conduct virtual and data-driven research that is less dependent on fume hoods and their accompanying ducts. There- fore the architect could remove the agglomeration of equipment that had accumulated over time and route the building services still required so that they are largely exposed, but arranged in a thoughtful and integrated way.
One programmatic change requested by the client was the creation of a place where the scientists could relax and informally meet to discuss their work. Toward that end, Williams designed a social area in Greeley’s lobby, where previously there had been only a reception desk. He provided soft seating and a kitchenette, and defined the area with cherry cabinets similar to the existing casework found throughout the building. These stop several feet below the sculptural ceiling to maintain Rudolph’s free-flowing configuration.
The bold expression and spatial clarity of 1950s and ’60s Modernist buildings is found in later projects as well. They are evident at Pietro Belluschi’s Manton Research Center (1973) on the campus of the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Although this granite-clad library and study facility has a somewhat blocky exterior, Manton was “well-conceived,” says the architect for the just-completed renovation, Annabelle Selldorf, principal of Selldorf Architects in New York (acting with Gensler). Its reading areas open to the Berkshire landscape, and it featured Belluschi’s “classic modern details” that are “clean, elegant, and robust.”
Selldorf and Gensler—who had previously overseen the renovation of the Clark’s neoclassical-style main museum building, finishing it at roughly the same time as a Tadao Ando–designed visitor center (RECORD, August 2014)—made important functional upgrades to Manton. They updated life-safety systems, improved accessibility, renovated the auditorium, and created a new works-on-paper gallery and study rooms. However, the most visually impressive aspect of the Manton project is the transformation of the building’s original skylit indoor sculpture court, which had devolved into what Selldorf calls a “nonspecific” space. In order to give it a new purpose, the architects remade it into a grand reading room, adding balconies with 24-foot-tall bookshelves on opposite walls. In addition, they reconstructed the gridded skylight overhead so that it appears almost identical to what was there before, but with improved thermal and daylighting performance: its 8-by-8-foot single-glazed lites were replaced with one double-glazed skylight. Baffles were introduced to mitigate glare while cleverly concealing electric illumination as well as sprinklers.
Now, not only is the space bright and inviting, it embodies Manton’s research mission. This transformation, like the renovations of the Hall of Science, Richards, and Greeley, demonstrates how new technologies and fresh approaches can help midcentury buildings truly fulfill their potential.