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Brutalist Building Set for Demolition Raises Questions of Sustainability and Design

Thatcher Music Building in Pomona College
Pomona College's Thatcher Music Building. | Photo: Christopher Michno

In 2015, when Pomona College submitted its new campus master plan to the city of Claremont, few eyebrows were raised over its intentions to tear down a modestly scaled Brutalist building along one of the college’s storied avenues. It was perhaps a symptom of the frequency with which the tear-down/rebuild cycle dispatches with the old to pave way for the new. 

The Thatcher Music Building at 340 N. College Ave. is one of only two examples of Brutalist architecture in Claremont. Concrete — that humble, yet marvelous substance that is the basis for modern construction — is not typically thought of as beautiful. And Brutalist architecture — named for the process of casting buildings in “raw,” poured-in-place, unfinished concrete — has taken a beating for being cold, uninviting, even imposing or alienating. The Brutalist name comes from the French term béton brut, or raw concrete, which Swiss architect Le Corbusier used to describe the material. 

The planned demolition of Thatcher prompts questions about the preservation of cultural resources. More than that, it presents an opportunity to consider the trade-offs of demolish and replace, and to imagine the possibilities for innovation and design. 

Thatcher has been called a characteristic example of Brutalism by the college's consulting firm, ARG of Pasadena. Its removal, and that of an adjacent structure, would allow for a new music facility to be built in a slightly different alignment preferred by the college.

Pomona College Campus Map
[Click to enlarge] Pomona College campus map.

“Institutions — cultural institutions in particular,” Alan Hess, architect and critic for the San Jose Mercury News, contends, “should give every benefit of the doubt to historic structures; that’s the definition of culture and cultural preservation, as far as I’m concerned. That’s what universities are about.”

It turns out that the college’s overriding preservation interest is in rehabilitating the celebrated 1908-1913 campus master plan designed by noted architect Myron Hunt. Speaking last year in a meeting at the college, Nelson Scott Smith of Artichoke Design Company, another firm that is consulting with Pomona, said that Thatcher blocks important vistas or “enfilades” Hunt designed into the layout of the central quadrangle and its adjacent buildings. According to Smith, Thatcher was a “mistake” when seen in that context. “The argument that we’re making,” he said, “is that the plan is preeminent; the plan takes precedence over a piece of architecture that was not meant to be there.”

He explained that this was something he had seen on campuses throughout the United States, and overseas as well, and that he had devoted much of his architectural planning practice over the last 40 years to undoing these kinds of mistakes. 

Bridges Hall of Music in Pomona College
Pomona College's Bridges Hall of Music. | Photo: Christopher Michno

Indeed, Pomona’s master plan cites the “simplicity and clarity” of Hunt’s plan and landscape architect Ralph Cornell’s “formal, axial overlay” as providing “an ageless framework for development of the Pomona College campus.” It additionally identifies Thatcher’s current orientation as diminishing the “architectural singularity and dignity of Bridges Hall of Music” (Thatcher’s neighbor to the east and described in the plan document as one of Hunt’s finest works).

The questions at hand — what should be saved, what criteria should be used, and whether one scenario has a greater claim to authenticity or restoration — are hotly debated. “There’s nothing sacred about the original Hunt plan,” Hess said. “Stanford over the past decade or two has demolished a number of buildings from the '60s that were built in the wrong place according to the original Frederick Olmsted plan for that campus.” 

Hess acknowledges that Olmsted was an extraordinary planner and that there may be some argument for restoring original vistas, but, he said, “It is the nature of campuses to grow and change.”

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And in the demolition conversation, sustainability is equally important, and it informs preservation. Brutalist Thatcher is an example of an energy-intensive building that has suddenly become disposable. Cement, the main ingredient and binding agent in concrete, requires lots of energy, and its manufacture produces a remarkable amount of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Institutions often emphasize the LEED certification of new buildings and the recycling of materials from demolished buildings, Hess said, “but doing the actual calculation of embodied energy in an existing building versus how much a brand new shiny LEED certified building will save over 10 or 20 years... that is frankly, rarely done, and it should be.” (LEED – Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — is a certification system developed by the Green Building Council to formalize and quantify energy efficient design solutions.)

According to John Bohn, an architect in Southern California and the coordinator of SCI-Arc’s Japan/China Studio Program, the loss of embodied energy can be mitigated somewhat by recycling building materials, but it’s a mixed bag — where you may save raw material, you expend a fair amount of energy demolishing, collecting, transporting, and grinding it up. 

Although embodied energy is one of the major reasons it is important to save historic buildings, Hess said, it isn’t widely understood, yet.

In response to a request for comment on whether analysis of the embodied energy in Thatcher was performed before deciding that it should be removed rather than adaptively reused, Pomona referred to its master plan, which lays out a strategy of reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions through new and renovation construction. The college did not confirm or deny whether any analysis of embodied energy was conducted.

Thatcher Music Building in Pomona College
Pomona College's Thatcher Music Building. | Photo: Christopher Michno

Adaptive reuse is also tricky. Bohn worked on a project to design an adaptive reuse scenario for Harvard’s Fogg Museum when he was at Daly Genik in L.A. (now Kevin Daly Architects). “You actually have to design a project for leaving the structure in place, pay an architect for the design, and get the project priced,” and at the same time, he said, “you have to pay another architect, or the same architect, to design a new building, and then compare apples to apples.”  

There’s no question that designing alternate scenarios in parallel is expensive, but in Bohn’s opinion, it’s money well spent and the most thorough way to assess adaptive reuse versus demolition and all new construction. 

Bohn, who clarified that he is not affiliated with Pomona’s project to replace Thatcher, and that he is not familiar with the facts involved in the assessment and design phases of the project, said that in general with a project like this “the assessment process usually happens well before anyone with a design sensibility, or the interest, predisposition or the time to critique either the programming and assessment, is involved.” 

Bohn said that it is a missed opportunity when a building is not evaluated for adaptive reuse. “It is an artifact of the 20th century modernist ethos that it’s either tabula rasa or it’s got to match; you’re either restoring it intact and preserving it as if it were behind velvet ropes, or you’re scraping it clean and building something new.” 

Hess was also careful to note that he is not familiar with the details of the assessment and planning process involved, but said that after reviewing the college’s new master plan and the original Hunt plan, he didn’t see why a good architect couldn’t adaptively reuse Thatcher and restore the all-important vistas.

Thatcher Music Building in Pomona College
Pomona College's Thatcher Music Building. | Photo: Christopher Michno

“Brutalism is out of fashion now, there’s no question,” Hess said. But for him, the larger lesson is that current taste is not always a sound basis for long term decisions. "If today’s decision makers question the selection of a Brutalist structure then because it was the fashion," he suggested, “they’d just repeat the same mistake now if they tear it down based on today’s fashion, as far as I see it.”

He noted that on a campus, much like in a city, variety is preferable to homogeneity, and that a good architect will carefully balance the sense of unity and conformity of style against the individuality that newer buildings, like Thatcher, bring to a campus. 

Bohn views the binary, either/or conundrum as a something of a trap. The challenge of adaptively reusing a building, he said, sets a standard — you have to live up to it. It creates tension and forces engagement, “not in a strictly conservationist manner,” he said, “but to push what is possible, to produce something more compelling and more provocative. It often ends up far better — as better architecture.”

 

Top image: View of Pomona College's Bridges Hall of Music from Marston Quad. | Photo: Christopher Michno

 

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