Brick and Block: Novel Digital Design With Brick

Words: Dan Kamys

Novel Digital Design With Brick

New design from architecture professor of the practice, Sheila Kennedy, respects history while advancing state-of-the-art masonry.

By Ken Shulman

Adaptive reuse poses a number of challenges for architects. They need to respect and often preserve existing structures while retooling them for entirely new functions. They need to work in materials that are either identical or compatible with those used in the original construction. And when the building slated for a refit is situated in a historic zone – something that happens frequently in adaptive reuse – they must also be mindful that design choices align with the neighborhood esthetic. In the case of Harvard University’s new Tozzer Anthropology Building, that neighborhood esthetic was brick. Sheila Kennedy, professor of the practice at MIT’s School of Architecture, stayed within these limits as she adapted the former library into a space for classrooms, offices, and collaborative work space. But she also transcended those limits with a digitally designed monumental entryway whose staggered masonry somehow evokes both ancient Mesopotamia and Silicon Valley. Novel Digital Design With Brick “With the Tozzer building, we wanted to create something that had the feel of an artifact,” says Kennedy, who is also a principal at the Boston-based Kennedy and Violich Architecture (KVA). For Tozzer’s entryway, KVA and MATx – the firm’s material research unit – developed a dedicated software program to calculate the intricate geometries of the corbeled masonry wall. The size and placement of every brick – even the spacing of the mortar bonds – were digitally determined. “But we also wanted to create something that was an object of our time,” she says. Completed in 1971, the original Tozzer building was a boxlike brick-clad structure designed to host Harvard’s anthropology research library – one of the largest in the world. Set amidst Harvard’s 11-building museum complex on Divinity Avenue – a context that includes Harvard’s venerable Peabody Museum – the more modest Tozzer Library harmonized dutifully with its venerable neighbors. Novel Digital Design With Brick But advances in library technology enabled Harvard to move toward a central deposit system. For Tozzer, this meant that many of the less valuable or duplicate items from its illustrious collection could be moved off-site – opening up space for offices, and the possibility of bringing the three sections of Harvard’s anthropology department under a single roof. In addition, pre-construction revealed that the building had developed a significant mold problem in its exterior cavity. In 2009, Nazneen Cooper, assistant dean for campus design and planning at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, contacted Kennedy. “Tozzer was a building that had outlived it envelope,” says Cooper, who collaborated with Kennedy and her team throughout the renovation. “But it still existed in a specific context with specific parameters. We wanted to embellish and reinvigorate Tozzer without completely eliminating it. One can only alter a building so much before the operation ceases to be a transformation. And Sheila understood that.” Novel Digital Design With Brick The new Tozzer Anthropology Building is a gut renovation effected within Tozzer’s original shell and footprint. A new skin of iron-flecked brick is used on the building, while a new third and fourth floor ups its usable space to just under 35,000 square feet. A glass skylight, set in a copper roof and angled by KVA to capture maximum daylight, illuminates a birch-clad light well in the heart of the building. Mirrored slits in the pale-colored paneling offer reflections of sky and stars to those in the common space below. Composite panels placed irregularly into the birch walls dampen echoes and ambient noise, making the well more suitable for seminars and presentations. Tozzer’s signature feature, however, is the east-facing façade on its entry pavilion, a complex geometric composition achieved entirely in corbelled brick, a design that steps and stacks brick units. Stacked in a complex arithmetic array, the bricks fan out in two separate waves from a recessed central seam that angles from upper left to lower right. More sculpture than wall, the stepped courses of brick read like archetypes from an ancient world. Yet, they are stunningly contemporary. “We designed this façade on the computer,” Kennedy says. “But we verified the design with local masons, and real bricks. Then we went back to the computer to modify our design. Physical materials have properties and subtle differences that even the most sophisticated computations can’t capture on their own. This project required many work flow exchanges between the digital and the manual.” Kennedy does not believe that material and esthetic limits need to throttle creativity. But a successful adaptive reuse project requires more than learning to work within constraints. “You have to bring something to those constraints,” she says. “Something that involves both craft and creativity. I think the MIT motto has it right. ‘Mens et manus.’ ‘Mind and hand.’ Today we understand that creativity is a product of the mind and the hand.” The Tozzer entryway has drawn praise from fellow designers and also from craftsmen. The building was recently awarded a Best in Class prize from the Brick Industry Association of America. “I’ve been in this business for 45 years and have never seen anything like what Sheila and her design team at KVA have done here,” says Steve Bolognese, New England regional director for the International Masonry Institute. “She’s brought masonry design and craftsmanship to a level few people thought was possible. She’s shown what can be achieved when brickwork and imagination meet.”

Ken Shulman is with the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT. This article first appeared at

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