Mission-Impossible Architecture

Often faced with complex, even contra­dictory, conditions, Leers Weinzapfel Associates makes an art of designing buildings that play nicely with their surroundings.

When it opened in 1973, Harvard University’s Science Center, designed by noted Spanish architect Josep Lluis Sert, transformed the school’s classical landscape. The tall, rugged concrete struc­ture looms above the storied brick quad, acting as a gateway to newer northern parts of the campus. The craggy 290,000-square-foot building—which won an AIA New England Award in 2004—remains one of the university’s most striking landmarks and continues to attract its share of architecture pilgrims. But by 2000 it had grown overcrowded: the university needed to accommodate expanding programs in statistics, economics, and the history of science, and room to display an array of prized instruments that catalog the history of American scientific inquiry.

Still, it’s a delicate thing to modernize a Modern icon—especially one on a historic campus. The uni­versity’s program called for nearly 65,000 feet of addition and renovation to the Science Center, but the structure’s stepped terraces made it dif­ficult to imagine where insertions might go. The project pitted Harvard’s space—always at a premium—against its design heritage, demanding sensitivity to neighbors at the university and beyond. With either too light or too heavy a touch, any addition could go awry.

As it turned out, Leers Weinzapfel Associates (LWA), the firm commissioned for the project, is expert at weaving new structures into tricky existing contexts. The ability to blend the old with the new, and to play nice with architectural forebears, earned Boston-based LWA the AIA firm award (one of the highest honors the national organization bestows) last February. Inspired by an early Sert sketch, Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzapfel replaced a one-story section with a four-story glass tower. The volumes realize one of Sert’s unfinished daydreams, but the material—translucent channel glass—is all new. “It was a bit like embedding crystals in a rock,” Leers says. In a delicate balance, added areas respond to and spring from original volumes while offering the building light hallways, better circulation, and a contemporary identity. “The addition is almost like encasing the old building in amber,” Weinzapfel says. “Our insertion reframes it.”

While LWA does create freestanding buildings, it is especially well regarded for projects like the one at Harvard, which meld multiple, sometimes contradictory, requirements. It’s apt to face jumbled design heritages, expected to create space where no space seems available, and commissioned to unify clusters of disparate buildings. The firm has slung a glass tent over two gymnasiums to create a single volume, has doubled the square footage of the Harvard New College Theatre virtually invisibly last June, and is now uniting wings of a Boston temple from three different eras into one coherent whole. Leers likes to refer to their work as “mission-impossible architecture.”

Whether or not they are technically possible, projects of this nature have great potential to fall flat; at their worst they detract from the spaces they seek to fix. But LWA’s work is praised both for having its own identity—strong forms, shapes, and clean modern lines—and for using that identity to bring quiet order amid confusion. “They have this way of making problematic spaces seem so resolved that you don’t notice their work at all,” architect Mack Scogin says. “They don’t leave a big imprimatur. Instead it’s so und­er­stated it almost seems natural.” Linda McCracken-Hunt, who chaired the jury that made the AIA award, offers this characterization: “It’s usually deceptively simple work that does well what architecture is supposed to be doing. It collaborates.”

Indeed, it wasn’t a grand campus hall that caught McCracken-Hunt’s eye last year. She was drawn to a humble cooling plant. Near a baseball field at one of the entrances to the University of Pennsylvania, the firm wrapped an elliptical mesh skin around chiller machinery. Echoing the curving shape of the river and roads nearby, the form is poised like freestanding sculpture at the edge of the sports field. Completed in 2000, the design both screens and displays the equipment: at night the pipes glow inside it. McCracken-Hunt notes, “I looked at the portfolio and thought: These additions are the kind of work architects are called to do all the time. They’re doing well what a lot of us in the profession spurn or turn our noses up at.”

LWA stresses the need for architects to see themselves as agents of resolution. Leers and Weinzapfel—who met in 1966 as the only two women architects working for Boston’s Earl Flansburgh—have run a practice built on col­laboration since they partnered to open their own firm in 1982. “We wanted to do good work in the public realm, and we wanted that work to emerge from dialogue between communities and places,” Weinzapfel says. “We wanted forms to emerge from discussions with partners, associates, and everyone working at our practice.” Aiming to find new ways to shape the city—and also of working within the office—the two women have fostered an internal culture that respects the diversity of needs in the lives of their employees. They offer alternative hours for new parents, an inclusive process that provides mentoring for young architects, and flexible schedules to en-courage architects who want to teach. “We wanted time for family, for travel,” Weinzapfel explains. “We wanted a rich life.”

This supportive spirit in the workplace offers an important analog to the complex conditions the two women have been called to address in the outside world. They began their practice by taking on often overlooked public-sector work, “work that no one wanted,” Leers says. “We had infrastructure, parking garages. We kept being called into places where there was some disorder or chaos and trying to make the solution seem effortless. We saw ourselves stitching urban spaces together.” One of their first assignments was to renovate a rest area for tollbooth operators in the side of the Tobin Bridge, on Boston’s Route 1. Like the Science Center at Harvard, the structure required a light touch. Woven into the bridge’s metal makeup, it hovers below the line of traffic, 120 feet in the air and almost invisible to the average passerby. Inside, it offers a dignified space for workers to take a much-needed break. “It solved a tricky problem,” McCracken-Hunt says. “It was not about getting seen but about serving people by solving their problem thoughtfully.” Marion Weiss, one of Leers’s former students, recalls that the design marked a paradigm shift: “That bridge was seminal in pointing out how architecture can be part of the infrastructure that surrounds us all the time. It owned something that architects too often turn their backs to.”

Twenty-five years later, Leers and Weinzapfel, who finish each other’s sentences, still talk about the importance of using collaborative strategies to approach the projects that come their way. They think in teams: two of LWA’s four partners are assigned to each building, and communal sketch pads lie in piles around their Knee­land Street offices, where the entire firm participates in monthly design reviews. “Our sense of ourselves really emerges from our discussions about the work,” Weinzapfel says. “We don’t say, ‘This is who we are,’ and then do it. It’s more like we ask ourselves, ‘What is the work showing us that we do? How does this tell us how to understand ourselves?’”

This philosophy of responsiveness is the foundation of LWA’s generous design style. “When we build, we have to consider ourselves, our communities, layers of time and space—we’re blending so many kinds of need,” Weinzapfel says. One question, she notes, keeps following them: “When you put something of our time into a preexisting situation, how do you make a building part of the ongoing conversation of the life of a city or of a campus?”

Earlier this year LWA was called on to explore this question in a new way, down the block from the Science Center: it expanded the former Hasty Pudding building, a dilapidated Gilded Age landmark, into the cutting-edge Harvard New College Theatre. The Cambridge icon offered its own roster of challenges. Harvard wanted to preserve the three-story building’s appearance but also needed more room—and a state-of-the-art theater facility for its young thespians. Building up would upset vocal Cambridge neighbors, however, and building out was not an option. LWA came up with a solution that salvaged the celebrated facade while disguising three additional floors. The architects kept a 31-foot-deep swath of the original edifice, with its double-height arched windows and gentleman’s book room, but demolished the crumbling structure behind it. By adding three stor­­ies underground and raising the ceiling height of the top floor, they were able to hide the addition even as they made room for a catwalk, a lift, and rehearsal spaces—and a grand auditorium with a stage. While appearing relatively unchanged from the outside (it grew only 12 feet in height), the building has gone from 17,000 to 35,000 square feet, a major achievement in crowded Cambridge. “You go in, and this massive theater opens up! We like to call it the stealth building,” Leers quips.

It may seem that mission-impossible architecture has taken the firm to unusual places, but LWA argues that what it is doing shouldn’t be all that uncommon. Finding ways to alter buildings while respecting them and their context is a challenge that always has and always will define urban building. What’s more, LWA’s work proves that practicing architecture with sensitivity and a signature style are not mutually exclusive agendas. “We stitch together the program and spirit of the people who use the place into the world we live in now,” Weinzapfel says. Building on this thought, Leers goes on: “We have to offer our mark to create dialogue. Look at Alberti’s facade on San Andrea, in Mantova, building over the medieval to create the Renaissance. It adds to the conversation. It’s the layering that moves its city forward.”

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