Harvard has a brick problem.
As early as 1890, when the celebrated firm of McKim, Mead & White was commissioned to design the Johnston Gate on the western perimeter of Harvard Yard, university administrators stipulated that the designers use a particular ruddy shade of brick to match the 18th-century buildings beyond. The material shortly assumed the name “Harvard brick,” and it has been the official façade treatment of America’s oldest institution of higher learning ever since.
For designers, this condition can be a bit limiting, to say the least. “It would be nice to do something not in brick,” says Frano Violich, FAIA, who, together with wife Sheila Kennedy, FAIA, heads up Boston-based Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA). Last fall, the duo completed work on the latest addition to the sprawling Cambridge, Mass., campus. The new Tozzer Anthropology Building on Divinity Avenue is a classic academic pavilion, but it attempts to tinker with the well-worn formula while remaining within the confines of a tight $16 million budget—and, of course, a very familiar wrapping.
The pitfalls of Harvard’s brick-o-mania are borne out by the history of the Tozzer site, enfolded on three sides by (and connected via a slender passageway to) the massive Peabody and Harvard Museum complex. KVA’s new project incorporates the steel floor plates and fire stairs of the now-dismantled Tozzer Library, built in 1974 by local office Johnson Hotvedt and Associates. This predecessor building, also clad in brick, was a reasonably accomplished exercise in Late Modernism—“I kind of liked it,” Kennedy admits—that unfortunately suffered from a couple key defects: It incorporated a menacingly dark and dingy underpass on its southern side, and it developed an internal mold problem that finally rendered it hazardous to occupants. “The insulation space between the brick and the interior wall was this thick,” Violich says, pinching thumb and forefinger to an insufficient sandwich-width. It’s hard to believe that a school with Harvard’s resources would ever have sanctioned such a building; and yet Cambridge abounds with similar mediocrities, suggesting that the university has been prepared to tolerate almost any transgression of taste or quality, provided that it’s red.
Making hay with baked clay isn’t easy—but fortunately for Harvard, KVA came to the commission with a ready-made background in material innovation. Inside their studio at a former bottling plant in the still-industrial Roxbury neighborhood, machines buzz and whirr as associates fabricate mock-ups and finished products for MATx, the firm’s spin-off research lab. “Originally we were only interested in modeling,” explains Kennedy, “but a lot of our colleagues and clients encouraged us to get into fabrication.” The firm is currently producing a line of custom furniture for the Boston offices of a German consulting firm, hewing plain plywood slabs into carefully contoured and textured tables and chairs. In their work for other institutional clients—as with their 2012 University of Pennsylvania law school building in Philadelphia, and the upcoming Wegmans Hall for the University of Rochester in upstate New York—KVA has confronted the problems of brick-bound buildings head on, and Tozzer shows what they can do with even the most modest of means.
Before considering the envelope, the designers took care to fashion an interior that would finally give Harvard’s anthropologists a space of which they could be proud. “They’ve been an important department going back 100 years,” Violich says, “but they’d never really had a home before.” Anthropology’s three sub-departments had been scattered in various annexes around the Peabody, the Vanserg building, and in an imposing Minoru Yamasaki tower nearby. With the digitization of libraries advancing at a brisk pace, the university saw the opportunity to put fewer books and more people into the new Tozzer, placing the social anthropology department in the new facility, and thus giving it a closer connection to the archaeology department in the Peabody next door. The lowermost floors still house reading rooms and archival storage, including a sophisticated mechanical stack system in the basement, but the majority of the building is now given over to offices and workspaces for faculty and graduate students.
Most significantly, the core of the building now boasts a light-filled social space topped by a ceiling system that shows KVA’s technical finesse in full swing: Beneath a broad glass skylight, a sloped and jagged wall is decked in irregular wooden panels—interrupted at intervals by lighting fixtures and acoustical panels made from a novel cement-and-wood matrix—that impart a warm, glowing atmosphere to the gallery that rings the void on the fourth floor and the lounge in the center of the atrium on the floor below. During last winter’s record-breaking blizzards, the thick snow pack atop the atrium glass infused the space with an eerie blue radiance. One faculty member said it was like living in an igloo.
But for the exterior, the architects couldn’t really hope for any such evocative accidents, and instead tried to put a subtle spin on the Harvard learning-box typology. The skin of the new anthropology building isn’t just a clipped-on veneer; it was mortared into place the old-fashioned way by the construction team. The signature moment, the place where KVA was able to introduce real structural drama, is in the main entrance: The east face of the foyer sports a broad, two-story fin of brick, projecting at an acute angle from the building with a crease that extends from the corner of the door. The courses on one side of the fold recede as they go up, turning the wall into a self-supporting corbel; on the other, the courses march back out again in staggered diagonal rows. The intent, Kennedy says, is to “express the depth of the wall,” giving the building skin a certain presence and specificity while lending a hierarchical significance to the entryway. It’s a simple enough gesture that belies a complicated geometric and engineering investigation, and the builders were sufficiently wary to insist on creating a freestanding version before they’d set to work on the real thing. “They said, ‘We get that you can design it,’ ” Violich says. “ ‘But we’re not sure we can build it.’ ”
Yet build it they did, and to good effect. KVA’s Tozzer is an especially fine meditation on the idea of the background building—the architectural team player, always getting along with its neighbors—on a campus that abounds in half-hearted contextual duds dolled up in crimson costumes. The only misfortune is that the architects had to be kept on such a short leash. (Even the building’s copper roof, the one real break with the prevailing material palette of Divinity Avenue, elicited raised eyebrows.) Indeed, it would have been nice if KVA had done some “not in brick,” as Violich says—the firm that produced the net-zero Soft House in Hamburg, Germany, using PV ribbons instead of solar arrays seems somewhat overmatched to the simplicities and strictures of the Tozzer brief. But if anyone can find a play on a well-trod material, it’s this team, and their corbelled approach to textured masonry makes Tozzer more than merely contextual—it makes it a piece of architecture.