Old and new technologies combine in renovated anthropology building.
Tasked with transforming Harvard‘s 1971 Tozzer Library into a new home for the university’s Anthropology Department, Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA) faced a unique set of challenges. In addition to balancing the desire for a distinct architectural identity with the building’s literal and metaphorical connection to adjacent structures including Peabody Museum, the architects had to accommodate an expanded program within the old library’s footprint and structure. As for Tozzer Library’s facade, a mold problem and poor environmental performance meant that preserving the brick exterior was never an option. “It’s a generic problem of envelopes from buildings that aren’t that old, yet can’t stand up to contemporary needs,” said principal Sheila Kennedy. “What are you going to do with those buildings? The bold approach here was, ‘we’re going to build on [the existing] value.” By stripping Tozzer Library down to its steel and concrete-slab bones, adding space under a two-story copper roof, and wrapping the exterior in a parametrically-designed brick skin, KVA seamlessly negotiated between Harvard’s storied past and the mandates of a 21st-century curriculum.
Both Kennedy and founding principal J. Frano Violich are quick to dismiss the notion that the problems with the 1971 building, designed by Boston firm Johnson, Hotvedt and Associates, were anything other than a product of their times. “Attitudes toward energy consumption were very different at the time,” said Violich. “[Tozzer Library] was built by intelligent people, but everyone’s understanding was different from today.” In contrast, he said, for the new Tozzer Anthropology Building, “everyone was on top of every [LEED] point.” (The project achieved LEED Gold.) KVA began by substituting 6-inch wall studs for the original 2 1/2-inch studs, making way for improved air circulation and insulation. In addition, they eliminated the potential for mold growth by increasing the air gap between the outside sheeting and the back of the brick veneer from 3/4 inches to 2 inches.
With the mechanics of the exterior walls in place, “the challenge, aesthetically, was how do we get a sense of both thickness and thinness in the veneer?” said Violich. Luckily, the question of how to breathe new life into flat surfaces was nothing new for the architects. “At KVA we’ve been very interested in how one designs with contemporary wall systems, with materials that are thin,” explained Kennedy. “How do we express their thinness, but by architectural means and devices give them an architectural thickness, manipulate them formally so there can be a game of thin and thick?”
In the case of Tozzer Anthropology Building, the answer was a new entrance pavilion with a three-dimensional brick pattern meant to “seem like carved thick brick—like an archeological find,” said Kennedy. Drawing upon their early experiments with digital brick, including those at the University of Pennsylvania Law School building, the designers used parametric design software to tie each brick unit to the building’s overall form. “As we manipulated the physical form in 3D, we could see various brick patterns that could develop,” explained Kennedy. “It was a hybrid of low-tech and high-tech,” she said of the process of zeroing in on corbeling, a brick-stacking technique that allows for overhanging layers. The digitally-derived corbeled texture complemented the depth of ornament found elsewhere around Harvard’s campus. “We didn’t want to make something that was arbitrary and ornamental, but something that was authentic to our time,” said Kennedy.
To arrive at a final design for the multi-story entrance wall, the architects again combined cutting-edge technology with traditional expertise. “The actual pattern was achieved through physical experimentation,” explained Kennedy. “We did a lot of dry stack work with local masons: We would take the designs out of the computer, then pass them to the masons to test. That was a really fun part of the process.” KVA then took what they learned from their real-life experiments back into the virtual world, adjusting the digital design accordingly.
Even the flat facades appear unlike typical brick walls, thanks largely to an unusual window arrangement. “When you’re looking at the windows, you’re not looking at traditional punch windows, or a strip window with a long relieving angle,” said Violich. Rather, the windows are shifted to conceal the vertical control joints in the brick. “That helps defuse the veneer quality that brick sometimes brings on,” he explained. The floor-to-floor windows further confound expectations by concealing the plenum and—because they are frameless, and punch out rather than in—appearing as much like light monitors as the actual skylights cut into the building’s roofline.
Tozzer Anthropology Building’s recycled-content copper roof completes the dialogue between thick and thin established on the brick facades. “We worked hard in the massing of the design to give a twist to the building,” said Kennedy. “That could really only happen in the two new floors.” KVA textured the copper roof with vertical standing seams, again using parametric software to arrange different panel types in a corduroy-like pattern. “A lot of times people think advanced facades are super technical, but we can get lost in the technology and why we’re using it,” observed Kennedy. “[This project] is a good combination of an aesthetic agenda, an architectural agenda, and a technical agenda.”
For KVA, Tozzer Anthropology Building represents more than just a repurposed campus building. Rather, it offers a provocative answer to one of today’s most pressing questions: how to rectify an inherited aesthetic preference for glass with the current push for improved energy efficiency. “Everybody loves glass—we love transparency in architecture,” said Kennedy. “But as we move on in our energy transition, we’re going to have to develop new ideas about mass and opacity. How can we go back to a pre-modern time, but create something that is contemporary?”