When the Wooster Science Building first opened at the State University of New York’s New Paltz campus in 1967, the building was at the forefront of a new architectural movement sweeping the U.S.: Brutalism.With raw concrete facades and bulky, block-like shapes, Brutalist buildings expressed a kind of unadorned monumentality: ambitious yet pragmatic. For that reason, Brutalist landmarks, such as Boston City Hall and Montreal’s Habitat ’67, have endured, and the genre, now reaching the 50-year threshold for historic status, has in recent years gained new appreciation. Yet Brutalism also reflected the limitations of the time. Multi-pane or coated glass had not yet become prevalent; energy still was cheap, so most Brutalist buildings minimized windows and natural light and had little insulation.
In the case of Wooster Science Building, by the time SUNY New Paltz leaders began considering a renovation or possible replacement, the 75,000-square-foot building did not have many fans. “All the bad architectural features that you could have we had,” recalls John Shupe, the school’s assistant vice president for facilities management. “It was dark inside with no air conditioning. There was no wayfinding in the building, so you didn’t know where you were. There was no real lobby. And the roof leaked.”
Demo vs. Reno
Even so, Long Island City, N.Y.-based Croxton Collaborative Architects P.C. argued against demolishing the structure in favor of a transformative renovation that also would provide for collaborative learning via the relocation of two other science departments and four engineering labs under one roof.
“We struck a middle road,” explains Randy Croxton, FAIA, LEED AP, president of Croxton Collaborative Architects. “We resisted the notion that this building would be demolished because, in terms of urban design and sustainability and resourcefulness, it just seemed crazy to throw away the massive amount of structure and bones of the building, which are very handsome and striking. We felt we could literally strip every molecule of the building away but leave the bones and rebuild a new facility on that structural scaffold.”
At first, the client took convincing. “There was some deliberation,” Shupe says. “Even our president at the time wanted to raze the building. But we felt that given the proper amount of time and money we could transform the building into a real gem.” Indeed, now that the renamed Wooster Hall has been fully restored as a light-filled, LEED Gold-rated sustainable project teeming with life, that former president has come back to visit, “and he just can’t believe how beautiful it came out,” Shupe adds.
Although the renovation retained about 96 percent of the original structure, you’d never know it; inside and out, the building—besides retaining the same basic exterior form—is almost unrecognizable. That started with making the building much more transparent and full of light.
Let the Light In
“It was moving from brutalism to humanism,” Croxton says. “Our premise was we were going to daylight every square foot of the building. We see the building as being connected to the natural sequence of sunrise, sunset, clouds. It introduces a dynamic quality to the space. You can dim electric lighting in the presence of natural light, so you’re saving energy and creating a day in the building that’s like a day in nature. Your circadian rhythm is an extremely important aspect of your wellbeing.”
Although most of the renovation retained the original building’s basic form, a cantilevered extension was added to the third floor that extends the full length of the south elevation, creating space for new faculty offices, as well as a summer-shaded, winter-warmed solar exposure at ground level.
The architects also added a massive new skylight that traverses the east-west spine of the building, at times extending down all three floors as a kind of lightwell. The skylight pairs with and bathes in natural light a new internal stairway that serves as what Croxton calls “the move, the connector,” between the old quad immediately north of the building and a science quad to the south. The stairway is placed at a slight angle within the building but faces directly north-south, allowing it to become a kind of daily and seasonal sundial. At each summer solstice at noon, the sun shines directly on the top stair; on spring and summer solstices, it spotlights the bottom stair. Students and faculty even gather there on the summer solstice to celebrate.