Perspectivas May 10, 2016

20th Century Design, 21st Century Demands: A Transformation at Smith College

by Yanel de Angel

The post-WWII Baby Boom ushered in an era of construction on a massive scale, from the Levittown-like suburbs sprouting up across our cities to an unprecedented expansion of higher education facilities. Today, we continue to learn and live in many of these mid-century structures, but often they are misaligned with the way society has changed in the last half dozen decades. From sustainability and energy performance targets to accessibility requirements, what was once a good fit for a college or university can suddenly be an expensive (and exclusionary) burden.

When Smith College opened the Cutter and Ziskind Houses in 1957, the news reported: “Smith College in Northampton now boasts of having a twin dormitory that is classed as the most modern and unusual in New England.” Young women were proud to call these residence halls their home. The rigidity of the International Style design acted as a blank canvas or a frame in which life took place. Students brought the color and energy to the spaces and quickly learned to use the large glass windows as billboards to express themselves. The simplicity of the design was appreciated, even as it stood out from the neighboring Victorian houses along Northampton’s Elm Street. And while a private courtyard connecting the two Houses faced the street, a solid wall did not allow pedestrians to enjoy the space.

A drawing of the Cutter and Ziskind Houses from the 1950s around the time of their opening.
Image courtesy of the Smith College Archives.

In the intervening decades, the building aged and eventually became an undesired housing accommodation. But Smith’s leadership understood its place in history and the value it had in the continuum of their physical campus heritage. In 2011, they hired Perkins+Will to revitalize the building. The transformation, done in two summers, created a welcoming and desirable home for a new generation of women to enjoy.

The goals of the project were clear from the beginning: improve the building’s performance and access to daylight, create a welcoming, accessible interior environment, and respect the architectural history of the building. The renovation strategy consisted of replacing the exterior envelope with appropriate insulation, high-performance glazing, and energy-efficient systems, while matching the color and tectonic language of the original metal panels and details.  Efficient building systems and water saving plumbing fixtures were installed throughout the complex to improve the building’s performance and increase the energy and water efficiency.

The interior renovation restored the mid-century design through color palettes, carpet patterns, and furnishings. The spatial configuration was respected but transformed into a more open and bright space.  The most widely-used spaces, the kitchen and game rooms, were brought up from the basement to the ground floor to create a welcoming environment for social interaction.  To bring daylight deeper into the floor plate, some end-of-corridor bedrooms were transformed into lounges and a new multi-level skylight was introduced in front of the new elevators.

A green roof, not in the minds of designers in the 1950s, was added in the transformation of the Cutter and Ziskind Houses at Smith.
Skylights introduce natural light into areas that previously had none.

The students expressed a desire that the restoration create an inclusive environment, both socially and physically.  Elevators were introduced to make each floor accessible for people of all abilities, and two entry ramps were integrated into the building’s concrete plinth at the public entrance of the dining hall. Additionally, all bedroom doors were widened for wheelchair accessibility.

Today, the Cutter and Ziskind Houses are much more than a place to sleep and eat; they are part of the social and cultural center for the Smith experience.  The transformation has enhanced the community for the students living there in a sustainable, healthy environment built for the next sixty years.