Wellesley science center exterior
Courtesy Dave Burk © SOM

At Wellesley, a Science Center is Reimagined as a Learning Village

SOM overhauls the university’s science complex, crafting a lively place to learn out of an unloved 1970s hall. 

Wellesley College is composed of a wildly varied collection of architecture created over the course of the past century on a hilly 500-acre campus in suburban Boston. There’s Day & Klauder’s pristine Gothic core and tower from the early 1930s; Paul Rudolph’s midcentury Jewett Arts Center; Rafael Moneo’s Davis Art Museum from the early 1990s; Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects’ Wang Campus Center from the mid-2000s; and finally, the Science Complex, a mid-1970s Brutalist work by Perry, Dean & Stewart Architects. The latter building has been transformed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill into a “scientific village,” maintaining some of its concrete-and-steel grittiness while adding a new mass-timber Innovation Hub and connecting old and new through a multipurpose atrium called Focus. 

“A ‘machine to learn in’ was the antithesis of the Wellesley spirit,” says Colin Koop, design partner at SOM in charge of the project. “So we came up with the idea of a village for science. There’s a transition from heavy steel and concrete to mass timber– structured nodes. It’s turned a place no one wanted to be into the ultimate place on campus to come and study.” 

“Science on display fuels the creative mind.” 

Michelle Maheu, director of planning, design, and construction, Wellesley College
Bird's-eye view of new science complex
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill reimagined Wellesley College’s Science Complex in the spirit of a living laboratory. The redesign, which was completed in 2022, involved renovating and connecting multiple existing buildings as well as adding an addition that’s sheathed in zinc panels.

Indeed, on a late-winter day the complex was humming with activity. New clerestory windows bathe Focus’s numerous seating options, popular study nooks, and buzzy café in natural light. New pavilions and the innovation hub, which flaunts its glue-laminated Douglas fir structure, are clad in zinc panels intended to age and lend character over time. Throughout, classroom spaces are walled with glass, the activity within visible to all.

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The Largest Construction Project in School History

“Science on display fuels the creative mind,” says Michelle Maheu, director of planning, design, and construction at the college. And creative minds Wellesley has in abundance—remaining resolutely all women, it has an impressive record of achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Five of the seven most popular majors are currently in STEM, and Wellesley STEM faculty are awarded more federal funding than any other liberal arts college without a graduate program. All this brainpower comes at a price: The private college declined to give the cost of the new Science Complex but did say it was the largest construction project in its history.

The overhaul comprised all of Science Hill, linking the existing Whitin Observatory and the botanic gardens. It also replaced 1970s-era windows with high-performance, insulated glazing for optimum energy efficiency. The project is certified LEED Platinum.

The original Perry Dean building, with its exposed systems and ductwork, was of its mid-1970s era—Koop compares it to Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’s Centre Pompidou in Paris, of a similar vintage. “There is affection for the original Science Complex at Wellesley,” he says, “although sometimes it feels like it’s one of those buildings that only architects could love.” Several elements of that structure live on in the new complex in the form of steel-and-concrete bridges that traverse Focus as well as a colorful exterior stairway and significant bare concrete elements that house classrooms and labs. A neo-Gothic wall of the college’s very first science building, Sage Hall, is also preserved as an artifact.

Wellesley College Science Center hallway
A mass-timber structure was an essential component of SOM’s low-carbon design strategy. By installing new stormwater capture systems, efficient mechanicals, and additional natural lighting, the building achieved LEED Platinum certification and is among the most efficient buildings on campus.

Creating Community Through Contemporary Design

In the beginning of the process, Koop says, “people were begging us to do something the opposite of the original L,” Wellesley shorthand for the “laboratory” building. But working with the school community, the design team opted to overhaul the building in a way that would give students and faculty the airy, modern space they craved without tearing down what was there. “A village is a more contemporary expression of learning than a machine,” Koop concludes. “I think we kept the best of the 1970s building while creating a new complex that, like the other buildings on campus, is architecture of its time.”

But consensus did not come easily. “Wellesley is the most communal campus I’ve ever worked on,” adds Koop. “There was so much back-and-forth. You really had to defend your ideas.”

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