From Analog to Digital: Redesigning Gund for the 21st century

Photo by Richard Mandelkorn for Bruner/Cott
By Barbara Epstein
For 40 years Gund Hall has reigned as an architectural icon of the 20th century. Architect John Andrews (MArch ‘58) designed a structure with great bones, proudly displayed. But changes in the architectural workplace and in design education—wide use of digital tools, larger class sizes, increased collaboration among students and the imperative for energy efficiency—have all argued for upgrades and change.
Gund Hall Toward the end of his tenure, Josep Lluís Sert (dean and faculty 1953-1969), nurtured the project to create Gund and recruited Andrews to design it. Lee Cott (MAUD ’70 and former adjunct professor of urban design) was student representative on the building committee. He remembers Sert’s fascination with the stepped design in which Andrews showcased the structural elements.
Gund Hall studios
“One major problem was that architects love large open spaces, but then people smoked and liked radios and loud music. So we built partitions for sound proofing and air containment,” recalls Cott. “Students continued to build up the partitions, obstructing sightlines and overwhelming the architecture. By the time I came back to teach at the GSD, it had become quite chaotic.”
The traditional print-plot-post model of design had largely given way to computer assisted design, and students had not been using their work space efficiently. Few used the partitions for pin-ups or the desks for drawing, which rather had become storage vehicles for coffee makers and microwaves. Some students stored mattresses under their desks until fire inspectors intervened. Says one MArch student, not without fondness, “From the upper trays, it had the look of a favela.”
The challenge
Dean Mohsen Mostafavi wanted Gund to reflect today’s architecture, accommodate 21st century digital needs and be more energy efficient. Again, the GSD turned to Lee Cott. He and Henry Moss (MArch ’70) of Bruner/Cott analyzed studio space and energy waste for a complete overhaul. Their history with other Harvard renovation and preservation projects— notably Radcliffe Institute Gymnasium, Peabody Terraces, Blackstone offices, Memorial Hall and University Hall—well suited them for the task. However, the resulting grand design to replace glass on the south and north elevations and redesign the mechanical systems had to be scaled back in the wake of the economic downturn.
In the meantime, the school moved ahead to bring the studios into the 21st century. In 2009 the dean convened a committee with Cott, Moss, Susan Tang (MArch ‘93) and representatives from the GSD community: students, faculty, executive dean Pat Roberts and facilities manager Kevin Cahill. Cott says, “We also had a secret weapon, Lyle Lemon, Bruner/Cott’s CAD manager who is also a cabinetmaker. He designed the furniture and insured quality control.”
The furniture had to be flexible. In tandem with design by computer there is continuing need for model building and pin-up space. There was a call for better storage and comfortable meeting and conference areas.
Cahill explains, “The profession is changing dramatically. We were investing significant resources and we wanted it to be useful at least 20 years. We looked at industry trends to project the future and predict the lifespan of our new design. The studios needed to become more ergonomic. There was also the aesthetic component; of course we wanted it to work well and look good.”
Designing for today and the future
The solution incorporated several key components: a desk; a spine for storage of books, plans and drawings; a rolling storage cart with cutting surface and a compact ergonomic chair. The desk chairs had to glide and be adjustable. They had to be durable and stackable so space could be cleared for graduation. Yet they could not be too costly, fancy or frivolous.
Low Plexiglas partitions were chosen for greater transparency, offering better views of the beautiful space and more student interaction. The team tested 100 new desks on the 2nd and 3rd floors in 2010. Student feedback led to modifications to increase the storage volume of the spine. The cart top was redesigned to enable it to be moved onto the desktop for a higher cutting surface. A new prototype was made available for students to test and comment further.
Gund Hall studios
Photo by Richard Mandelkorn for Bruner/Cott
Transformation of the studios was completed this year. Kitchenettes that double as meeting and gathering spaces were added to 2nd and 3rd floors. Additional teaching and conferencing areas were found in underutilized space along the Quincy St. elevation. The reconfigured workspaces expanded into some former office areas to add 100 desks. The additional buildings on Sumner and Kirkland streets made it possible to expand the Design Labs and Research Units and accommodate more non-studio students, increasing square footage by 13%. Now the GSD has capacity for growing programs like urban planning, landscape architecture, Career Discovery and the undergraduate architecture concentration.
“I think this process was an ideal example of how clients, architects and users can work together. Now the GSD resembles the way professionals work today in the architectural office.” says Cott. “No more drafting tables and stools; most of the work is done on computer screen. For me the single most important element of the building is the black-framed staircases that run diagonally through. The black steel of the work spaces is in harmony with the architecture and keeps the look cohesive, while wood makes it warm, friendly and visually pleasing. It’s an architectural solution: organized in an elegant way but allowing for the messiness of design work. Students have a greater sense of pride in their surroundings and keep it neater. I’m proud they have been positive and supportive of the changes.”
Although students cannot pin drawings on the translucent partitions, they can use typical architects’ tools: tape and alligator clamps, and they can prop foamcor in the chalk trays. Some students miss having more elbow room but many like the greater transparency and the warmth of the wood surfaces. Many of the reservations cited by students are also positives. “Gund used to be more informal, scrappier,” said one third-floor resident. “Now it’s cleaner and airier. It feels more serious and professional.” 
Cahill for one relishes the next stage of planning for long and short term classroom needs, Executive Ed, the impact of EdX, growth of the fabrication labs and new teaching technology. He says, “It’s a dynamic and exciting time for the GSD and education in the design professions. I’m having a lot of fun going 100 mph.”
Barbara Epstein is a writer, editor and consultant working with nonprofit, academic and community organizations.