Retrofitting Brutalism: Boston University Law Tower

Part 1

Retrofitting Brutalism: Boston University Law Tower

[Note: Retrofitting Brutalism appears online in three articles, each highlighting a different project. You can find our second installment, the Peabody Terrace, here. The third installment on the Holyoke Center appears here.]

Stationed between Harvard University and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bruner/Cott finds itself at arguably the epicenter of Brutalism—the Charles River where reinforced concrete towers thrived in the 1960s due to postwar campus expansion programs and the desire for an effect of stability and permanence among institutions. Bruner/Cott’s pioneering work with adaptive reuse in the 70s, along with extensive experience in managing the preservation of entire campuses of buildings—some nearly entire towns—has naturally led the firm to Boston University and Harvard University , where the architects find themselves reengaging the work of their former colleagues and teachers.

Technical complexities of renovating Brutalism bring forth a new set of preservation issues not seen in the restoration of 19th century clapboard buildings and limestone buildings—namely the cultural and tectonic baggage of exposed concrete. People often dislike concrete buildings. And concrete-formed structures are prone to sprawling and cracking since they are often reinforced and formed incorrectly. There is an art to concrete restoration that not only involves labor-intensive selective demolition, but also a precise pairing of aggregates to minimize the difference between old and new exposed finishes. “This is very fascinating work on a level that is very different than renovating a 19th century Victorian church. Modern architecture is of my time. We were around when modern architecture was new and innovative, and now we are renovating it. Its very interesting to see its faults and to be able to bring it back so it can continue for many years—hopefully many decades,” said Cott.

The following projects have much in common despite a range of nearly 20 years between completion dates. Their stories all stem from what Cott describes as a “downward spiral” of disinvestment—a familiar story that goes something like this: The building is not particularly liked by the public leading to a decline in its use, which triggers owners to stop taking care of it because of costly repairs. The building deteriorates, and its occupants hate it even more. Now demolition is on the table as a solution. The first question from these owners is often, “If we clear out the building, can we demolish it?” All of this effort is ironic for an architectural movement that made every aesthetic, formal, and structural attempt at erasure of a tumultuous past that included the Great Depression and two world wars. But Bruner/Cott sees its work as a respectful blend of preservation and correction of modernism’s faults, and “do the impossible” by making these buildings better than they ever were to begin with.

Boston University’s School of Law Tower as seen from Storrow Drive (Richard Mandelkorn)
Boston University’s School of Law Tower as seen from Storrow Drive (Richard Mandelkorn)

Boston University Law Tower

• Date of Retrofit: 2015 (original construction 1965)
• Architect: Bruner/Cott
• Project Scope: New Redstone building; total gut renovation of Tower and Pappas Library; facade restoration.
• Consultants: Weidlinger Associates (structural); BR+A (mep/fp); Richard Burck Associates (landscape design); Colburn & Guyette (foodservice design); Acentech (acoustic, av); Atelier Ten (lighting); Haley & Aldrich (geotech); Nitsch Engineering (civil); Faithful & Gould (cost estimating)
• Windows:  Graham Architectural Windows
• Facade Installer: Sunrise Erectors

The project began with Bruner/Cott compiling a report that paired preservation principles with a development-minded approach. This became the blueprint for renovations to Sert’s Boston University Law Tower. Bruner/Cott’s message to BU’s administrators was simple and direct: “You are the stewards of an incredibly important piece of modern architecture.” In total, the architects added 100,000 square feet to Sert’s composition, which Cott said was already a generally well-defined and complete scheme. “The owners were smart enough to ask the question, ‘Can these buildings be saved?’ which is music to any architect’s ears.”

Bruner/Cott’s comprehensive renovations to the 265-foot-tall tower included building system upgrades that required the insertion of new vertical distribution chases through Sert’s concrete slabs, and a chilled-beam, passive cooling system. Building envelope repairs included the patching of more than 630 separate areas of concrete through a labor-intensive process involving sawing and chipping away at the structure to get behind reinforcement bars. New patches of concrete were carefully color matched to the existing concrete through a process of specifying matching aggregates to Sert’s original mix. The patched areas were bush hammered to match the existing finish. Cott said this method of renovation is invasive not only to the building, but its occupants: “If the owner thinks they can’t afford to move people out of the building, then all of that noise and vibration is something for the occupants to complain about.”

One of the major flaws of this building was the circulation system of the building, which relied on elevators to transport large crowds of students to elevated lecture halls in the tower. During classes, it would take 20 to 30 minutes to clear the room, which was disruptive to the academic schedule. Bruner/Cott reprogrammed the building, swapping in administration and faculty offices for the large occupancy areas, which have relocated to a new five-story 93,000-square-foot addition between the base of the tower and an adjacent library. “We made every effort to make the new construction part of the aesthetics of the original tower,” said Cott. “When you’re inside, you know the building has been renovated, but you don’t really know what is renovated and what is original.” The architects worked to maintain the historic character of the building intact through exposed, board-formed concrete finishes.