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What’s surprising about the scene is how busy it is, because for at least a half-dozen years Hopkins officials have been whispering that the Mattin Center “doesn’t work.” The complex, a three-building fantasia of ramps and stairs by the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, opened in 2001 and is easily the university’s highest-profile piece of contemporary architecture. But in early March the Hopkins president, Ronald J. Daniels, announced that it would be replaced by a student center.
Architecture fans began complaining immediately. Mark Lamster, architecture critic for The Dallas Morning News and a professor of architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, summed up their sentiments in a tweet: “NOT HAPPY.”
Generally there is less respect for the modern buildings on campuses than for the historic ones, certainly among alumni and at the regent level.
The announcement raises touchy questions: If you hire top-notch architects for a high-profile project at your university, do you then have some kind of curatorial responsibility to care for it, even as tastes and needs — and presidents and trustees — change? And are postwar buildings in much more danger than those from, say, the 1910s and 20s? Hopkins, after all, spent $73 million a decade ago to renovate Gilman Hall, a Collegiate Georgian landmark from 1915, while the whole Mattin Center cost only $17 million to build. Hopkins has even preserved the brick outhouse from Homewood, the 1801 mansion for which the main campus is named. It’s right in the middle of the Freshman Quad.
“Generally there is less respect for the modern buildings on campuses than for the historic ones, certainly among alumni and at the regent level,” says Jeff Stebar, who heads the higher-education practice at the architecture firm Perkins+Will.
“The modern buildings were, in their era, quite shocking to many, and when people look back, they think that they don’t blend,” Stebar says. “I can think of many examples when we were told, ‘We hate that old building. Rip the skin off it. I want punched-brick openings with limestone lintels. Change it and make it look like Old Main.’”
Perhaps most notably, Dartmouth College has just reopened its Hood Museum after a renovation that obliterated a significant portion of its original 1980s configuration. The Hood was designed by Charles Moore, who was among the best known of the postmodernists and won the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 1990 (he died in 1993). The renovation, prompted by complaints that the building didn’t work and was hard for visitors to find, was by none other than Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.
They preserved Moore’s rear facade almost intact and kept some of his interior features, but his memorable entrance courtyard has been filled in and his galleries have been, as Williams puts it, “quieted” — stripped of details like the playful ceilings and benches Moore designed. Williams and Tsien, it should be stipulated, were hired to do a job that Dartmouth intended to go forward with in any case: Make the museum more visible from the college green, add gallery space, and add classrooms and offices for expanding programs. Given the site, the results would probably have been similar — if less thoughtful and elegant — had another firm been chosen for the job. Half a Moore, presumably, is better than none.
The story has several twists. For starters, Tsien had been a student of Moore’s in architecture school at the University of California at Los Angeles, so John Stromberg, the Hood’s director, says she “was uniquely placed to reinterpret his work.” Even more unusual, though, is that Williams and Tsien’s best-known building, designed for the American Folk Art Museum in New York in 2001, was demolished in 2014 after being purchased by the Museum of Modern Art. The architects remain quite publicly bitter. In a talk at Dartmouth on the Hood’s opening day — a talk in which, ironically enough, Williams said they hoped Moore would be happy with the changes they made to his building — Williams also said he would “never forgive” the Museum of Modern Art for what it did to theirs.
And now Hopkins has the Mattin Center in its cross hairs. Its site, between the academic area of the campus and student housing in the Charles Village neighborhood, has been identified as ideal for a student center. So far, the university hasn’t announced a timeline for the project, or said whether whoever is chosen to do the design work will be asked to consider keeping the Mattin complex as the student center’s core.
Robert A.M. Stern, founder of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, has worked at both Hopkins and Dartmouth. He says it’s “really unfortunate” when institutions “have buildings of the first order — even though they might not be perfect, but by important architects like Charles Moore — and you just go at it rather casually.”
Stern, like Moore a former dean of architecture at Yale University, has helped save buildings he thought were exceptional. Among them is Walter Gropius’s graduate-school complex at Harvard University, which Harvard’s president at the time, Lawrence Summers, was being “badgered by many people to tear down,” Stern says. More notable, however, was Stern’s championing of Paul Rudolph’s 1963 Art & Architecture Building at Yale, a Brutalist monument that reopened in 2008 after a top-to-bottom overhaul. As dean, Stern was the client rather than the architect for the $126-million project — which, he admitted at the time, was “a hard sell.” He hired a Yale architecture-school classmate, Charles Gwathmey, to do the design work, including an addition that brought elevators and more space. “That’s the issue,” Stern says now. “Can you add on and not destroy at the same time?”
The other issue was the site Moore had been given, shoehorned between a Romanesque 1880s library and Wallace K. Harrison’s exuberant Hopkins Center from 1962. Moore declined to compete with either, instead trusting museum visitors to find their way under a copper-trimmed bridge and into a courtyard unexpectedly, almost magically, dominated by vernacular New England shapes.
Williams and Tsien concluded that the only way to add space and make the museum visible from the green was to demolish the bridge and fill in the courtyard with a tall addition from which a giant square window peers out over the campus. Inside are three new classrooms and six new galleries, as well as a soaring lobby that can accommodate museum events or serve as student study space, since it’s connected to the Hopkins Center’s busy Courtyard Cafe.
As modern building types have become very specialized, it becomes increasingly difficult to adapt them for different uses. ... Buildings have stopped being boxes and have become very specific to the activities that are planned.
Changing needs, indeed, often get the blame when colleges doom buildings, and often that’s a fair call. “There are issues with eras of buildings, like some of the mid-’60s through the ’70s buildings that have a lot of concrete, either precast or cast in place,” says Stebar, of Perkins+Will, because their concrete structures limit changes. And “some of the construction details on those are extremely difficult to bring up to current code, or even to repair.”
He also says 80 percent of colleges “just don’t have the resources to upgrade those projects.” Perkins+Will, he says, just turned down a project at the U.S. Air Force Academy, which is looking to renovate its sleek Modernist barracks, designed in the 1950s by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. “We turned it down because the budget is not going to afford to restore its legacy. It was just going to upgrade the systems. We see that more than anything — just a Band-Aid on all these old buildings.”
Alice J. Raucher, architect of the university at UVa, says every structure has to be evaluated on its own merits. “There need to be criteria and value judgments on all architecture, regardless of whether you consider it traditional or modern. There are a lot of buildings that were built pre-World War II that are not so good and that have lost value. You have to weigh and judge each building, and its contribution to the larger whole, and whether it has outlived its useful life. Is there a higher and better purpose?”
“I’ve drunk the Modernist/Brutalist preservation Kool-Aid,” says her colleague Brian E. Hogg, UVa’s senior historic-preservation planner. “But as modern building types have become very specialized, it becomes increasingly difficult to adapt them for different uses. Lab buildings or athletic buildings have stopped being boxes and have become very specific to the activities that are planned.” That was the case with the 1965 basketball arena that was just torn down, a one-purpose building that had structural issues and was “an asbestos nightmare.”
Nonetheless, the university is preserving it, in a way. “We worked with three different departments to scan the dickens out of the building,” says Hogg. “We’re building a virtual-reality model so you can walk in and experience the building in digital 3-D. It’s become a student project, and an interdisciplinary project between departments. So there’s a silver lining here.” State officials, he adds, “thought that having this publicly accessible as a record of the building was a great way of mitigating the demolition.”
And some institutions remain, like Yale, protective of their modern buildings. Yale has renovated a rich trove of treasures — Eero Saarinen’s 1958 Ingalls Rink; his two residential colleges from 1961, Morse and Ezra Stiles; two art museums by Louis Kahn, from 1953 and 1974; and the 1963 Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Gordon Bunshaft. Harvard has just renovated Josep Lluis Sert’s 1966 Holyoke Center, a 10-story tower of concrete and glass, as a showpiece campus center that got rave reviews. And Stebar points to Colorado State University, where his firm helped renovate the Lory Student Center, which dates to 1962. Designed by James Hunter, its highlight is a theater with a swooping catenary roof made of concrete. “The building had been added to and modified over 30 or 40 years in a very insensitive way. It had had things stuck on it, and additions that did not respect its nature or character,” Stebar says. “Part of our effort was to remove all that and get back to the original idea of the building — opening up views to mountains and beyond — and then to let the building expand in a way that, we thought, would have been considered by the original designers.”
At Colorado State U., Perkins + Will helped renovate the Lory Student Center, on a Modernist campus that opened in 1962. Designed by James Hunter, the center’s highlight is a theater with a swooping catenary roof made of concrete, seen below in an original drawing and as it looks today. (Above: Raul Garcia. Below: Colorado State U.)
Stebar recalls that he and a colleague were walking with the university architect when he told them how important it was for Colorado State to maintain its International Style heritage on that part of campus. “We about fell over — it was such an unusual thing to hear,” Stebar says. “We are thrilled any time a campus wants to do that, because we believe so much in the principles of Modernism that drove those buildings. It’s a treat for us when we find somebody who wants to celebrate them.”