If you go on a tour of important modernist buildings in the Boston/Cambridge region of Massachusetts, several buildings by the Catalan architect Josep Lluis Sert will be among them. Sert emigrated from Barcelona to New York City in 1939 and eventually made his way to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (1953-1969) where he taught and eventually became Dean, introducing to that school and to the world the first-degree program in urban design.
One of Sert’s buildings in Cambridge, the Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School (1972), an important modern era school, is now threatened with demolition. Docomomo US/New England is working with a coalition of Cambridge residents, members of the local design community, and scholars to raise awareness of the importance of the building, and to try to convince the City that despite ‘significant reworking of the program to comply with code and contemporary educational pedagogy’ the building has tremendous potential and that saving it remains an economical and viable option.
Cambridge architect, Leland Cott, Principal of the architecture firm Bruner/Cott known for restoring mid-century buildings, including two Sert buildings, recently penned an article in Metropolis magazine noting the inherent difficulties of restoring Brutalist buildings of the 1960s and 1970s, which are of a similar ilk to the Martin Luther King School. Cott said that ‘building owners frequently find themselves overwhelmed with the ongoing maintenance and operations difficulties’ with these buildings.
In New England, 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 with Harvard’s Peabody Terrace Apartments (an early 1960s building of Sert design) where we carried out extensive concrete restoration efforts in 1995 to cover exposed reinforcing rods and to patch spalling material. Cott says that the first stage of the firm’s work on another of Sert’s buildings, the Boston University School of Law, will be of a similar nature: to prevent spalling material from falling to the ground.
The title of Cott’s article, Icon or Eyesore, sums up the positions of both sides of this issue; that of the preservationists and architectural historians who see great value in saving Sert’s grammar school and that of the building owners and clients who ultimately must bear the financial burden of the building’s upkeep.