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What Would Louis Kahn Say?

08.25.15 / PETER REISS, AIA, LEED AP

Balancing Past and Present in Mid-20th Century Buildings

As campus facilities built in the mid-20th Century age, school administrators naturally seek ways to adapt them to meet today’s needs. Yet when the building’s designer is a famous architect, the renovation question goes beyond how to modernize. Instead, it becomes how to handle history.

When considering the level of intervention in these storied places, a debate frequently erupts between those who see any structural or aesthetic change as unacceptable and those who are inclined to adapt and evolve the building. Compounding this debate is a big reality. Most mid-20th Century buildings need significant reinvestment due to mounting obsolescence, energy inefficiency, and/or past modifications poorly executed.

Louis Kahn Circa 1967 (University of Pennsylvania)

A recent example of this preservation dilemma is the Elm Street Dining Hall renovation at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. Designed by Louis Kahn and opened in 1971, the dining hall followed a much better-known and celebrated Kahn design, the campus library. Kahn is a giant in the field of architecture. The critic Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times just after Kahn’s 1974 death that he was, “in the opinion of most architectural scholars, America’s foremost living architect.”

The library and dining hall at Phillips Exeter are the last campus projects Kahn designed, and among his last known works. The library was built first. It is widely-believed that large parts of the Dining Hall design were completed by Winston Scott, then a 26 year old protégé at Kahn’s firm.

Balancing Past and Present

A 2010 ARC study revealed significant issues with the building’s function, layout and systems. Problems with lighting, acoustics and interior finish materials combined with the everyday challenges of entering and circulating within the building, providing adequate seating options, and storing student backpacks. The configuration of the dining areas and serving stations were inefficient and outdated.

Existing Dining Hall

In addition, upgrades were needed to remedy previous and poorly executed renovation work which detracted from the original quality and appearance of the building. Over the years, a number of changes corrupted the space, including the addition of acoustic panels adhered to a concrete ceiling, hanging acoustic banners, a variety of unmatched flooring materials, and a sprinkler system with indiscriminate placement of piping and nozzles. Outdated elements such as old storage units at the entry, cafeteria style serving counters and a food conveyor and dish washing system had all passed their natural life cycle and needed to be replaced.

Recognizing the historic significance of the building, we approached the design upgrades with a mandate to preserve Kahn’s original design and maintain the quality and volume of the interior space. We kept the floor plan intact and selected materials that were true to the original design. We balanced the building’s legacy elements and original design intent with the need to address obsolescence and provide a more functional, sustainable and flexible dining hall for 21st Century student needs.

Renovated Dining Space

Yet even with this effort to respectfully balance new and original, the debate was on. Architectural devotees contend that any intervention is problematic, and that anything replaced or updated must be an exact replica of what was there when the first meal was served in 1971.

While wrestling with this dilemma, I wondered “what would Lou say?’ How would an architect known for contemporary design advise architects and building owners on how far we go to keep aging buildings performing in a contemporary way? How much intervention is OK, and when does it cross the line?

Kahn was a man of his time. He integrated form and function, and by doing so acknowledged that function carries with it an obligation to make – and even remake – buildings that work well for their users. If he was here to weigh in, I think he would condone flexibility and functional logic. An intact and untouchable space serves neither the user nor the legacy of a celebrated architect like Louis Kahn.

Communication and Celebration

When designing renovations for iconic buildings, especially those built in 1960’s and 70’s, transparency and dialogue are essential. We learned at Phillips Exeter how passionate and truly global the community of architectural historians and preservationists is when the topic of renovation comes up in legacy buildings.

Prior to these conversations about intervention, a little research will help inform the program and the dialogue. Ask questions first. What can we learn from archival documents and architectural scholars about the design intent? Is there documentation that shows what is original and what was added after the original design?

Renovated Servery

Second, use social media to communicate the discovery phase, the subsequent plan, and its strategic rationale. Whether the audience is architecture devotees, alumni, students, or local community members with an emotional connection to a historic building, the two-way dialogue available via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube can resolve much of the criticism occurring when people have no access to the real story.

Third, build consensus among the campus stakeholders; allow for an open discussion and review. When possible, integrate the suggestions and aspirations of the majority of stakeholders.

Last, celebrate the architect! Share the stories found while researching, and engage with the extended architectural community to include them as part of the project plan. Rather than view it as a constraint, embrace the historic significance of the building while making practical and sustainable improvements. The reward: another 40-50 years of appreciating the legacy and honoring the original architect with daily use of the building.

Renovated Dining Area

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