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Prominent voices decry plans to renovate library at the Institute for Advanced Study

Jul 06, 2023Jul 06, 2023

Architects, preservation organizations, and faculty members at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) have spoken out against intentions to significantly remodel Wallace K. Harrison's Historical Studies – Social Science Library. The modernist library, which was dedicated in 1965, was designed at the request of IAS director J. Robert Oppenheimer. Prior to this commission, Harrison was known for his work on Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center, and the United Nations Building.

The library has suffered from an increasingly worrisome series of leaks over the years, largely due to the fact that its roof drains through pipes in its steel support beams to the center of the building. In order to repair the pipes, the IAS claims, the steel support beams would have to be taken apart.

The building's most unique feature is its ceiling. Not visible from the exterior, the wave-like white concrete ceiling combines skylights, air conditioning, and artificial lighting into one system within the ceiling structure. The concrete beams, which span 40 feet on center, are supported by 15-inch-deep concrete girders. Ducts run through the bottom of the beams, and the girders are set on concrete columns spaced 20 feet apart. The skylights are oriented to the north and reflect light downward.

Architectural historian and IAS professor emeritus Yves-Alain Bois offered a formal defense of the building to AN, celebrating its "immediate intelligibility of the open plan, with its central corridor devoid of doors and its thick freestanding walls, the glass panes from floor to ceiling that elegantly frame the trees outside, the modesty of the scale and proportions, everything contributes the uniquely serene atmosphere of the building—but main factor is the soft and diffuse light in which everything is bathed."

Public outcry began after renderings circulated that portray a scheme that would add a second floor over the existing ground level plan, enclosing the original roof. (Docomomo published the images on its website.) The majority of the second floor facade would be covered by alternating sun-shading panels, with at least one face enveloped in more glazing to reveal interior and structural elements. The approach navigates away from Harrison's glass-heavy modernism, instead offering a massing that hangs over the ground level. The addition, as designed, would eliminate the lighting conditions of Harrison's original building.

In a statement to AN, the IAS noted that the roof's ongoing deficiency "actively threatens the library's valuable collections." The IAS offered that it had been advised that a direct replacement was not viable given the local climate. Arguing in favor of the second-floor addition, the institution cited that it would meet the needs of a growing campus (almost 600 acres of which are permanently preserved), allow for the library's uninterrupted use (as solely replacing the roof would require a two-year closure), and help the school pursue its net-zero goals. The IAS cited the values of "architectural heritage, sustainability, and the research capacity and conditions of our scholars, which goes to the heart of the Institute's mission," as informing its decision to not replace the roof.

An open letter defending the building's preservation, and the IAS's history of commissioning well-known architects ranging from Marcel Breuer, Robert Geddes and Cesar Pelli to Steven Holl, has gathered over 230 signatories including: Barry Bergdoll, Deborah Berke, Elizabeth Diller, Hal Foster, Rem Koolhaas, Rosalind Krauss, Anthony Vidler, Sarah Whiting, and many current and former IAS faculty members. The letter discloses that Pennsylvania-based architecture firm Kimmel Bogrette is leading the redesign. It criticizes the firm's approach, arguing that "the proposed design assembles all the clichés of commercial architecture as if it were generated by a computer. It is as bulky and obtrusive as Harrison's gem is delicate and discreet."

A month ago, Docomomo US and Docomomo US / New York Tri-State released a statement of concern over the IAS's plans, noting not only the roof structure, but Harrison's subdued design in comparison to his work in Albany or at the U.N.

IAS professor emerita Joan W. Scott told AN that "the firm engaged to do the work is not of the caliber of these architects and seems to have been chosen by the former director and his associate as an ill-advised cost-saving measure and without consultation with faculty and other members of the Institute community." Kimmel Bogrette's prior education work includes an engineering building at Penn State Scranton, the LaSalle University School of Business, and a community center at Rosemont College.

In a statement to AN, architectural historian Jean-Louis Cohen likened Kimmel Bogrette's design to that of "a rather uninspired contemporary coffin," and criticized the IAS for "creat[ing] workspaces which could be funded—and named." He mentioned "the inability of the project's promoters to understand the difference between a prosaic facility, which simply houses a program without any spatial or [a]esthetic ambition and a work of architecture" and said that he is "convinced that there are better sites on the IAS's campus to [build] the spaces they need."

The IAS said that "through a broad and inclusive planning process over the past several years, [it] has solicited and incorporated perspectives from Trustees, Faculty, Staff, and others. We continue to consult with a variety of architectural experts to ensure we are examining these issues from all angles."

Bois placed responsibility for careful consideration on the institution, as it possesses a notable building: "If something like the IAS cannot find the means to preserve a jewel such as Harrison's delicate building—of which it has the good luck of being the custodian—who will?"

No public announcement of or timeline for this addition has been released by the IAS. Kimmel Bogrette did not respond to AN's request for comment.