Established in 1973 by Simeon Bruner and Leland (Lee) Cott, Bruner/Cott Architects is now led by three second-generation principals, Jason Forney, Jason Jewhurst, and Dana Kelly, who took over the practice in 2016. Architects of a broad spectrum of work regionally and nationally, the firm is widely recognized for adaptive reuse projects of historical, industrial, and mid-century buildings, including MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, as well as future-focused net zero design such as the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
One of the biggest museums of contemporary art in the world, MASS MoCA occupies a 16-acre site comprising a village-like complex of thirty-six mid-nineteenth century industrial buildings. The Kern Center, the world’s largest higher-ed certified Living Building to date, demonstrates the most advanced sustainable design strategies. The following conversation with the firm’s three principals took place in their Boston office. We discussed their history of innovative work, inspirations, and why their so-called “adaptive” reuse projects should be referred to as “transformative” instead.
Vladimir Belogolovsky: Considering your firm’s long history, is there a particular project that you would identify as your manifesto?
Jason Forney: Clearly, it is MASS MoCA. Over the last thirty years, it has become a testing ground for our practice—in developing ways of weaving old and new together in a more dynamic way than it is typically done. Our co-founder, Simeon Bruner, and one of our principals, Henry Moss, began working with MASS MoCA in the 1980s. Their initial ideas evolved and became intrinsic to the next generation in our firm. Often, historical architecture is preserved as is or taken down to start building from scratch. Our goal is to keep the right amount of old and add the new so that the result is appropriate, sensitive, and coherent. MASS MoCA is a world class art museum, but it also demonstrates layers of history and communicates on several levels. This complex puzzle of a project was a massive undertaking—we removed existing floors, walls, and facades. By taking things away, we allowed spaces to be sculpted and reconnected in artistic ways that are energetic and powerful. When you go there, the results may seem consequential and even inevitable, but the reality is that what appears today to be a single space was once dotted with hundreds of columns. We created vertical galleries three or four stories tall, and we exploited extreme horizontality with long views with hundreds of windows. You can’t find such spaces anywhere else, and you would not think of designing something like this from scratch now.
Jason Jewhurst: Throughout this work, there was a lot of very careful editing, so we would not remove too much of the original buildings’ patina and soul, so to speak, because the new program was going to be so different from the original use as a factory. This is what ties together the thirty years of work there—careful and thoughtful editing, whether reconfiguring the floor or taking an elevation apart and putting it back together in a different and very specific way, which actually happened to one of the end walls—we removed two thirds of that elevation and replaced it with glass.
Dana Kelly: My favorite part is a lightwell in the middle of the building where we removed all floors and stairs to have a clean, three-story high elevation, which has so many traces of history represented in layers of brick of different colors and the remnants of stairs. Everything was recomposed, leaving the most valuable extant aspects and allowing in the new ideas.
JF: For me personally, MASS MoCA was the key reason I came to the firm. I knew about this undertaking and wanted to be a part of it. I was working in New York and came here so I could work on this transformative project—and I’ve been doing that for the last seventeen years.
VB: What was it that originally attracted you to it?
JF: I visited a number of projects in Europe where old and new came together in very powerful ways. Castelvecchio by Carlo Scarpa was one of them. MASS MoCA was the first time I saw an American firm doing such a project in the US. And once I started working here, I realized that there was an opportunity for young practitioners to do a lot of experimentation that was supported by the firm’s founders, who encouraged us to express and push forward original ideas. So, MASS MoCA plays the role of a laboratory for many design ideas to happen. A very diverse, multi-phased project, it has provided many strategies for our other projects, which all emerge differently depending on their immediate and particular circumstances. And every time I visit the museum, I can tell how happy and excited people are, and it seems that the whole experience of exploring architecture and art is very holistic. Architecture becomes an intrinsic part of the experience.
VB: Your firm is celebrated as a pioneer of adaptive reuse projects, beginning with your ’70s-era conversions of decommissioned factories into housing. One source pointed out that your office “provocatively skirted conventions in the discipline. While it has become standard practice to either conserve historical fabric or audaciously layer contemporary design onto it, Bruner/Cott has opted for something in between.” Could you talk about this “in between” approach?
JF: One point is clear—when the practice of adaptive reuse and preservation began in America in the 1960s and ’70s, it was treated as a separate discipline from architecture. But gradually, I think we understood that just to preserve and clean up historical buildings is not sufficient. We really must breathe new and creative life into them.
DK: And this gives us permission to approach these structures the same way we design our new buildings.
JJ: We continually see the built environment as an opportunity, and we work with buildings from different eras. For us, it is never about preserving a time period; it is about understanding the potential of each building, embracing its qualities, while offering a new perspective on how people engage and experience it. Many of our projects focus on mid-century modern buildings, such as Smith Campus Center, created from the original ten-story, concrete, 1965 Holyoke Center at Harvard designed by Josep Lluis Sert. As executive architect, we worked with designers, London-based Hopkins Architects, on transforming the building into a series of public common spaces with multi-story linkages and increased transparency across the first two floors, and Henry Moss led the restoration of its facade.
DK: We don’t see these older buildings as a problem. We look for possibilities for them to accept new interventions. Another example is our restoration and new construction project for the 1963 Boston University School of Law, also a concrete complex by Sert. There, we converted the Law Tower from classrooms to faculty office and conference spaces and constructed the new, more accessible Sumner M. Redstone Building to intersect with it. Historical buildings like these provide so much opportunity for our cities. We can’t build like this anymore, so we need to treasure them.
VB: You are credited with being a specialist in maintaining Boston’s Brutalist-era concrete buildings such as those you just mentioned. Could you expand on this mission and talk about the challenges of reusing mid-century buildings whose envelopes were not often designed for the temperate zones in which they were built?
DK: Lee Cott and Henry Moss were educated at Harvard under the leadership of Josep Luis Sert while he was designing some of Boston’s Brutalist masterpieces. It was initially while working on renovating and adapting these structures—including Peabody Terrace, built in the 1950s and ’60s—that they developed a particular expertise in working with and understanding these buildings that we continue to embrace today. Lee and Henry were both instrumental in the success of the BU School of Law and the Smith Campus Center projects.
JJ: Of course, mid-century modern buildings have different personalities from the older masonry and brick mill buildings from which, for example, MASS MoCA is comprised. The majority were designed at the time when energy conservation was not a concern, and their primary material—concrete—proved to be very challenging with our Northeast climate. Now, they need to be repaired. These buildings don’t exactly have a great reputation; they are not associated with comfort, warmth, and beauty by most. We surveyed what people thought of them before undertaking our renovations, and there is a stigma attached to them. People don’t relate to them. So, for us, this work requires multifaceted strategies—this challenges us to evaluate what we should remove and replace, and what we should keep. It’s not only about rehabilitating building envelopes and systems—we love to reprogram them for new and future uses.
JF: As architects, we also understand the value of these buildings and the fact that they represented progressive Boston at the time they were being constructed. We believe there are ways to improve them through bold, imaginative transformations. People may not love them, but if you introduce wood or a planted wall as the Smith Campus Center does, or spacious classrooms, social and dining areas, and Boston River views as the BU School of Law does, they respond to these new humane and warm materials and inviting environments.
VB: Wouldn’t you also agree that adaptive reuse projects are becoming trendy? When did this start here in Boston?
DK: Bruner/Cott started this trend! [Laughs.] Simeon and Lee’s Piano Craft Guild project, completed in 1974, was the nation’s first conversion of a major mill structure into housing for artists, and we renovated it in 2016 to provide amenities for urban living. This original conversion project helped spark the transformation of the neighborhood, Boston’s South End. But we never thought of turning our renovation projects into a style.
JJ: We try to resist any stylization of our work. We prefer to look at each project as a specific design opportunity where we explore new design solutions. We are not preservationists; historical buildings and context influence our designs. For us, every project is about moving forward. Any building project can be viewed as reuse because they all have a site and context that will be transformed by what’s to come. We strive to design buildings constructed out of solid, local, beautiful materials and push the current building industry standards to produce a robust sustainable architecture that will age gracefully over time.
JF: I agree with you about a “trend,” but I don’t think that it is accurate to call our renovation projects “adaptive reuse,” which, to me, implies that something is wrong and that the building does not work for its current use. I like to flip it to a positive idea—and talk about “transformative reuse”—we are transforming the existing building into something that we all want now instead of fixing something that never worked. This is the kind of architecture that we want—new, positive, and transformative.
VB: Your firm is also equally engaged in sustainable design, including the Living Building Challenge (LBC) certified R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, which meets the world’s most rigorous proven performance standard for buildings. How did you come to this cutting-edge work, and what are your aspirations for it in your practice?
JF: This work is a natural companion to transformative reuse, in that they both aim to improve the environmental conditions and take better care of our planet. Designing the Kern Center was transformational in that the LBC causes us to question every act of building, moving to a kind of architecture that’s more positive and regenerative. Living Buildings exist within the means of their sites—generating their own energy, collecting and treating their own water, and being made from the healthiest and most responsible materials the current market offers.
JJ: Our inclusive design process was critical to the project’s success. The Kern Center is a pure reflection of the firm’s pioneering roots in reuse, and sustainability was successfully melted into its core values and design vision. As architects, we have a unique opportunity to create positive change by designing buildings that are regenerative, equitable, and respect the long-term carrying capacity of the earth. As advocates, we exercise our influence to lead clients, manufacturers, peers, and the general public on the value of sustainable built environments, both reused and new. The result is beautifully crafted architecture that is deeply rooted in its region, ecologically balanced, and environmentally responsible that also connects people to a place.
DK: The Kern Center and the aspirations of rigorous building performance standards is more than a nod to the history and success of Bruner/Cott. They weave together today, tomorrow, and our past. It is completely intentional, and we are very proud of this. Our designs for new buildings are informed by our work on the transformational reuse and preservation of historical buildings, and our work with older buildings is informed by what we learn through our new projects. We are excited about where this will take us!