The sleek structures of the International Style, symbols of corporate America’s innovative modernity, are turning 50. These buildings are favored by the real estate community and accepted by the public. But the same is not true for the architecturally aggressive Brutalist style of the 1960s and ’70s, more typically understood as symbols of America’s institutional durability. At the time they were designed and constructed, colleges and universities—as well as municipal, state, and federal governments–viewed poured-in-place concrete as a symbol of permanence and institutional longevity. The sculptural possibilities of the material seemed unlimited for a new generation of designers, but the public’s perception of concrete as an unfriendly architectural finish has outlasted its once perceived aesthetic benefits. Today, there are escalating appeals for the demolition and removal of many of these buildings, and battle lines have been drawn between building owners, occupants, and preservationists. Brutalist buildings are important legacies of an era #brutalcriticism Click To Tweet We think these buildings are important legacies of an era, so we’re looking for ways to find effective design solutions acceptable to all stakeholders, transforming these “out-of-date” structures into useful, up-to-date, state-of-the-art environments.


Peabody Terrace at Harvard, University (Josep Lluis Sert, completed 1963), exterior view and concrete restoration. Photos by Steve Rosenthal, Bruner/Cott

Here are the key issues we typically face and examples of how we address them:

Building owner/clients frequently find themselves overwhelmed with the ongoing maintenance and operations difficulties inherent in their 1960s and ’70s Brutalist buildings. Ironically, in New England, where we do most of our work, concrete has not proven to be durable, and the physical erosion of this material seems to further erode support for the building style itself. This was the case at Harvard University’s Peabody Terrace Apartments,where we carried out extensive concrete restoration efforts in 1995 to cover exposed reinforcing rods and to patch spalling (material fragments). The first stage of our work at theBoston University (BU) School of Law this summer (designed by Josep Lluis Sert) will be of a similar nature to prevent spalling concrete from falling to the ground.
Building users and tenants complain of the inflexibility inherent in a concrete building in which walls and columns are not easily removed or replaced to allow for the reallocation of space for growing and changing academic environments. At MIT in 1988, we renovated theStratton Student Center, removing over 300 tons of concrete in the process in order to make the interior spaces flow more evenly and to “unclog” the central atrium space. At the BU School of Law, we are designing a new classroom building alongside its existing tower to achieve the additional space required for the growth of the school. User discomfort resulting from obsolete HVAC systems and inadequate 1960s building envelope technology remains a source of ongoing occupant complaint, one that we are working to solve in this particular project now.
Preservationists prefer to see restoration efforts that are faithful to the original building fabric, but they appear to be more receptive to architectural additions as a necessary compromise to save original structures.

Boston University School of Law (Josep Lluis Sert, completed 1964), Law Tower exterior and concrete spalling. Photos by Bruner/Cott

We feel that architects willing to step into the fray to mitigate the differences among building owners, users, and preservationists can be effective mediators in what is about to become a ubiquitous discussion. Our next post will begin to explore these issues in more detail.



Stratton Student Center at MIT (Eduardo Catalano, completed 1968), exterior today; interior concrete removal and after renovation. Photos by Bruner/Cott

Modernist Buildings to Watch: California Home + Design has included Boston City Hall on its latest list of “25 Buildings to Demolish Right Now.” Other Brutalist buildings on that list include theFBI Headquarters in Washington, DC, and the Denver Public Library.


Leland Cott, FAIA, LEED, is a founding principal of Bruner/Cott & Associates, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, architecture and planning firm. This is the second in a series of Metropolis blogs written by members of Bruner/Cott’s restoration team that will focus on the challenges and solutions for converting, rehabilitating, or reusing mid-century buildings. Upcoming posts will explore issues associated with this conservation, drawing on the firm’s long-term experience working on the repair, enhancement, and continued use of this architecture. Mini-case studies of buildings will include the MIT Stratton Student Center by Eduardo Catalano; Harvard University’s Peabody Terrace Apartments and Holyoke Center and its Gund Hall for the Graduate School of Design by John Andrews; and Boston University’s School of Law and Law Library by Josep Lluis Sert. Design and technical problems associated with these projects as well as user/owner issues inherent to mid-century modern design will be explored. This post is part of the series, Icon or Eyesore?