Twelve years ago, fire coursed through Higgins Hall, home of Pratt Institute’s architecture school. The flames destroyed the Victorian building’s central wing, and severely damaged the north section. New York-based architects Rogers Marvel were commissioned to quickly rehabilitate the damaged area, while the school raised money to replace the lost part. The firm opted to leave a patch of charred rubble between the wings, and to preserve other vestiges of fire damage throughout the renovated hails–that is, to remind students, who don’t yet know, and the faculty, who may have forgotten, that buildings are always vulnerable.
Robert Rogers, a principal in the firm, was on the Brooklyn-based school’s faculty at the time of the disaster. “The firemen hosed the building from eight trucks for six hours,” he recalls. The water damage exposed a kind of sedimentary archaeological site of 19th- and 20th-century construction methods: load-bearing masonry, iron columns, concrete-block in fill, rubble-filled concrete-and-masonry walls. (Built in 1868 as a boys’ academy, the edifice had been expanded four times before Pratt acquired it in 1965.) “We let the layers become the material quality of the building,” Rogers says. From that point, he adds, the design became a matter of “selective insertion of the things you need in a school, like studios and pin-up space.”
In most rooms, the new insertions frame just a few original details: a cast-iron capital here, a line of brick archways there. The firm cut new arches into existing brick walls in some classrooms, and lined brick halls with white canvas-wrapped Homasote display boards. But the memory of smoke still gets in your eyes: some openings are filled temporarily with panes of translucent Kalwall, and a few panes have been left clear for peeks at the rubble next door.
There’s also one space whose new configuration was entirely defined by fire: a two-story jury room, formed by a street-front gable that had been left dangerously unsupported after the roof burned off. To keep the gable from falling into the street, firemen hosed it heavily, pushing it into the building; its collapse destroyed several floors and created an accidental atrium. Another roof-level space that still reflects its fire trauma is a formerly unused attic, which has become a light-flooded undergraduate studio. Its new roof rests on steel trusses rather than the original wood, and the ceiling planes shift as they dodge around the beams: a contemporary, fractured environment has been born within the familiar restrictions of a 19th-century garret.
Victoria Milne is a New York-based desinger, curator, and writer. She is currently working on a book about natural forms in design.
DAMAN VAN HORNE I Third-year Undergraduate Architecture Student
What works best for you in the renovated North Wing? I admire the respect shown the irregularities of the existing structure. There are many areas in which bad spacing in brick, or sections that would be considered bad masonry, have been left uncorrected. Looking from the attic studio onto the remnants of the gutted courtyard has really affected my work in a positive way.
ALEX PORTER I Assistant Visting Professor
And what works best for you? The way the openings look onto that central space-some are translucent and some transparent. I’m interested in seeing how that will relate to the new building [design, awarded to Steven Holland Rogers Marvel]. Also, I like the warmth of the found materials versus the metal and
new materials, and some interesting stuff is going on with the moving partitions in the offices. They function in terms of a whole, dynamic space.