The Thompson Sampler
The Thompson Sampler
Five buildings, five views of an architectural legacy.
By Elizabeth S. Padjen FAIA
BOYLSTON HALL, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
When Ben Thompson, then a principal of The Architects Collaborative, remodeled Harvard’s Boylston Hall in 1959, it had already undergone a century of expansion and renovation. But none of the previous modifications was as startling or influential as his thoroughly Modern approach.
Originally designed by Paul Schulze as a chemistry laboratory and museum, Boylston Hall was built in 1857 in an Italian Renaissance style. In 1871, Peabody & Stearns topped the Italian palazzo base with a Second Empire mansard story, providing an additional floor. Over the next 50 years, the building was renovated several more times.
In 1959, Harvard hoped to build a center for the study of modern languages on the site of Boylston Hall but was constrained by the terms of the donor’s bequest from razing the antiquated building. Charged with remodeling the structure, Thompson faced an ambitious task, requiring a 40 percent increase in floor area.
Unlike Peabody & Stearns, Thompson and his team intended to transform the building from the inside. The solution was to insert new floors into the monumental floor-to-floor heights of the original building — in effect, inserting a new office building into the historic structure. Two principles of European Modernism were well suited to this problem: the “free plan,” a floor plan that serves as a neutral canvas; and the “free façade,” a building enclosure that is untied to the organization of the interior space. But the Boylston “free façade” was not a Modern construction at all; it was instead the historic granite mass.
The architects showcased their Modern interior through sheets of glass fitted to the stone openings with minimal steel frames, inventing a new window system incorporating a spandrel panel to accommodate the new floor level and a minimal vertical mullion to allow office partitions to be framed to the center of the window openings. This treatment radically transformed the architecture of the building.
The appeal of the design was immediate. First, in an environment in which tradition was revered, it had a refreshingly subversive quality: the new design brilliantly opposed the restraints of the building’s history and multiple styles. Second was its utopianism. New office floors replaced the historic stair hall and chambers with neutral space; people animated the building. Third was its assertion of flexibility; its repetitive elements offered an aesthetic of systems design that was synonymous with the Modern Movement.
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