Memorial Drive in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is peppered with modern buildings made by 20th century icons. MIT owns two of the finest examples of campus architecture ever built on the Charles Rivers promenade: Baker House by Alvar Aalto, built in 1949, and I. M. Pei’s Visual Arts Center, from 1962. Three years after Pei’s tower was built, Josef Lluís Sert completed Peabody Terrace, a housing complex for Harvard students. Sert injected hulking concrete masses into the quiet brick town on the Charles River, though their construction was met with mixed reviews. Sert said he wanted to “bring the color and life of the Mediterranean” to Cambridge, but critics say this dream went unrealized. After its opening, one writer with The Boston Globe lamented, “There was not much color in his tall gray slabs.”
Aalto, Pei, Sert: These are tough acts to follow. Nevertheless, the Boston firm Bruner/Cott didn’t shy away from the opportunity to make a bold architectural statement in its latest refurbishment project at Rivermark, a Brutalist residential complex by Steffian Bradley Architects from the 1970s, located near major architectural landmarks by the modern masters.
Formerly known as 808 Memorial Drive, Rivermark offers 300 apartments split between two buildings: A 19-story tower housing 211 apartments sits next to a stepped, 10-story building with 89 units. In 1997, three years after rent control in Massachusetts was abolished, the 501(c)3 nonprofit Homeowners Rehab Inc. (HRI) purchased Rivermark to provide affordable housing for low-income renters. Twenty five years later, Bruner/Cott and NEI General Contracting were brought on by the Cambridge Housing Authority and HRI to refurbish them: Their rehab of the 490,000-square-foot “urban village” was completed in 2022.
The Bruner/Cott reno at Rivermark arguably realizes Sert’s dream of adding splashes of warm color to the Cambridge skyline. While it delivers much-needed improvements to roofing, insulation, and ADA accessibility upgrades, the most visible new feature at Rivermark is the colorful panels specified by the architects for their energy saving qualities. “The original facade material was textured concrete, which became really quite dirty over time,” Lawrence Cheng, a principal at Bruner/Cott, told AN. “When the client rebranded the building from 808 Memorial Drive to Rivermark, we chose to reclad the buildings in panels with colors that match Cambridge’s many brick buildings.”
Both Cheng and Jason Jewhurst, a fellow principal at Bruner/Cott, note that they found inspiration in Lacaton & Vassal’s work in France on midcentury social housing. The Pritzker Prize–winning studio is recognized for its pioneering work on retrofits, adding new skins to building exteriors that extend the footprint of apartments or add coveted outdoor space without the hefty price tag of ground-up construction. Its work allows older buildings to find new life, a design approach shared by Bruner/Cott in Cambridge.
“There are so many buildings like Rivermark throughout the U.S.,” Jewhurst told AN. “They either fall into degradation or result in teardowns. This was a really interesting project for us to think about how we can transform a midcentury modern building into a highly sustainable housing complex and how we can encourage the community, which has been there for four generations, to stay there.”
Today, Rivermark provides an addition to Bruner/Cott’s already impressive portfolio. Since 1973, Bruner/Cott has built an impressive track record of refurbishing midcentury classics: The firm was actually tapped to renovate Sert’s Peabody Terrace as well his Law School building at Boston University. It also successfully refurbished the Smith Campus Center (formerly Holyoke Center), another prominent Sert building on Harvard’s campus. “The difference between Rivermark and our work on Sert’s buildings is that Rivermark isn’t landmarked,” Cheng said. “This is the first time we actually put a new skin on an existing building.”
Looking ahead, Jewhurst sees real potential in applying the lessons learned from Rivermark to similar midcentury buildings in disrepair across the country. “Rivermark was an interesting challenge in the way we think about deep energy retrofits with overcladding,” he said. “The colorful cladding totally changes the experience of the courtyard. When the sun comes up and light touches the exterior, the feeling is remarkable. The cold concrete just didn’t have that same effect,” he continued. “To see people using and enjoying the outdoor space as the original architects intended is really rewarding.”