by Matt Walter, Director of Development & Alumni Affairs
In 2013, Portsmouth Abbey School’s Board of Regents selected architect Ellen Watts of Architerra in Boston, Massachusetts, to begin the conceptual design for what would eventually become plans for the School’s next major academic project – a state-of-the-art 21st-century science building. After considering no fewer than six possible locations on campus, including several stand-alone sites, Watts and the Board ultimately decided the ideal location for the new building would be the northeast corner of the Holy Lawn, adjacent to the existing Burden Classroom Building. The selection of this location made it necessary for the new building to be designed as part of the original campus architectural idiom established by Pietro Belluschi in the late 1950s. The following is a Q&A with Watts about this effort.
Who was Pietro Belluschi?
Pietro Belluschi was a leading American architect of Italian descent who came to national prominence as the dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning from 1951 to 1965. In 1972, he received the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, the profession’s highest honor. Belluschi was one of a handful of architects whose work helped define the Modern Movement of the 20th century. His exceptionally elegant designs conveyed his penchant for strong forms, natural materials and detailing used to decorative effect. He was especially prolific, designing or collaborating on nearly 1,000 buildings. His work is concentrated on the West Coast near his lifelong home in Portland, Oregon, and on the East Coast to which his base of operation shifted after his appointment to MIT.
How did Belluschi influence architecture at Portsmouth Abbey?
In the 1950s, Belluschi developed the original master plan that gave Portsmouth Abbey its current physical form. He also designed most of the campus buildings between 1960 and 1991, realizing his planning vision. Belluschi sited the Abbey church at the head of a rectangular green, arranging multiple educational buildings around this sacred open space. He placed the monastery to the east of the church where it benefits from greater quietude yet close proximity to the school. This sensitive master plan took advantage of the natural topography to physically elevate the church, symbolically emphasizing the importance of faith in the pursuit of learning. The overall effect of the plan is harmonious. Each building is distinctive yet rendered in a similar palette so that it resonates with its neighbors. The beautiful Abbey church is visible from a distance and serves as a focal point for the campus-wide composition.
Where do we encounter Belluschi-designed buildings in other parts of the world and how do his buildings at Portsmouth Abbey fit in with his overall portfolio?
Among mid-century Modern architects, Belluschi stands out for his versatility as well as his mastery. He designed small-scale churches and residences as well as large-scale commercial buildings. His work at Portsmouth Abbey is a leading example of his small scale work on the East Coast where Belluschi is perhaps best known for the Pan Am Building in New York, which he designed in collaboration with Walter Gropius and Emory Roth & Sons. Belluschi also designed such high-profile buildings as Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York, the Rohm and Haas Headquarters in Philadelphia, and One Financial Center in Boston. On the West Coast, Belluschi is perhaps best known for dozens of churches including the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco, as well as such large-scale commercial buildings as the Equitable Building in his original home city of Portland, OR.
What are some key design elements of a “Belluschi building” in general and specifically at the Abbey?
Belluschi favored shapely roofs, natural materials, and expressive details, as can be seen throughout the buildings he designed for Portsmouth Abbey. Copper-clad roofs silhouetted against the sky serve not only a functional but also a sculptural purpose. Exterior walls faced with local stone aren’t just durable but are also decorative. Wood beams and battens give these buildings uncommon visual interest. Belluschi was also apparently very interested in achieving designs which fostered strong indoor-outdoor connections and featured native materials and landscape elements. The many site walls he designed in coordination with the buildings lead the eye toward surrounding plantings and evoke the beauty of Narragansett Bay.
How is Belluschi incorporated into the new Science Building?
The new Science Building borrows many of the idioms that appear in Belluschi’s work – copper-clad roof, heavy timber beams, board and batten cladding, and decorative stone base – and modifies them as required for updated building codes, energy efficiency standards, and laboratory planning guidelines. The triple-glazed aluminum windows and integrated solar shading are somewhat different and much better performing than the original Belluschi windows, meeting new hurricane impact resistance requirements while saving significant energy. The link between the new Science Building and the adjacent Burden Classroom Building closely resembles the link between the Burden Classroom Building and the Library, creating a unified ensemble on the north side of the Holy Lawn. Inside, wood beams, paneling and handrails lend warmth to the interiors, echoing Belluschi’s use of wood while keeping the overall interior design considerably lighter and brighter.
What challenges did you face in designing this new building to be a “Belluschi building”?
One of the greatest challenges was replicating the board and batten cladding and attaching it to a considerably better building envelope than architects were designing in the 1960s. In order to provide optimal thermal insulation, the exterior walls of the new Science Building are much thicker than those Belluschi designed. We also had to adapt the design of the copper roofs to meet much higher design wind speeds than required by previous building codes. For this reason, the copper standing seams are taller and more tightly spaced on the new Science Building roof. The site also posed a challenge. It looks relatively flat, but it’s not. It slopes a full story from the Holy Lawn to the road that runs in front of the athletic fields. Moreover, we wanted the design of the new Science Building to completely transform the north side of the Burden Classroom Building. We did this through the design of the new terrace and courtyard associated with the new Science Building. Like Belluschi, we used site walls to extend the built environment into the landscape and to define a sense of place.
What about this building is distinctive from, or a 21st century-improvement on, a Belluschi design?
Like many of Belluschi’s designs, Architerra’s work is distinguished by memorable forms, natural materials, and elegant detailing. In general terms, all buildings are better than they were in the 1960s, and the new Science Building is no exception. Improved codes now require sprinklers and other fire protection measures, energy efficiency, ventilation, higher design wind speeds, seismic design, etc. Advanced building materials and building systems now include triple glazed windows, LED lighting, digital control systems that operate the mechanical systems, etc. Additionally, instructional methods have changed since the 1960s, shifting from lectures to more instruction hands-on learning and independent student projects. The new Science Building reflects its era while respecting the Belluschi legacy.
What about the design of this building distinguishes it from other “Belluschi” buildings on campus?
We wanted to feature two amazing views – one overlooking the Holy Lawn and one from the upper level Seminar Room – and for this purpose used triple-glazed curtainwall (structurally self-supporting multi-story glazing) which is common in the 21st century but was just starting to be developed toward the end of Belluschi’s career. For the delight these vistas will offer the occupants of the building, connecting them to views of the Abbey church and of Narragansett Bay, we think Belluschi would be pleased.
For more on the history of architecture at Portsmouth Abbey School, visit the “News” section of www.portsmouthabbeyscience.org to read “Art and Architecture at Portsmouth Abbey” written by John Walker P’60, former director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.