Transforming a Brute

by Angela Ward Hyatt

Angela Ward Hyatt

Angela Ward Hyatt

The original Shain Library at Connecticut College was designed in 1974 in the Brutalist style. Although many think that “Brutalist Architecture” with its signature severe, often formidable appearance, is derived from the word “brutal”, the term actually originates from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete”. Brutalist buildings, usually made exclusively of this unadorned concrete, communicated strength, functionality, and frank expression of materiality.


Rendering of new Shain Library

Rendering of new Shain Library

The Shain Library looks vaguely familiar to most people because this style is ubiquitous on college campus and was, in its heyday, a perfect expression for the “modern library” — large, repetitive open floorplates with relatively small windows, designed to hold books first and people second. This era of buildings was specifically anti-reading room, so most study spaces were scattered around the building perimeter, which had very few windows and was very much about solitary quiet study. Now, exactly 40 years after it was first opened, the Shain Library is still a building containing books, but it is also an Information Commons, where student work is mostly collaborative, group-based. Resources are mostly electronic. And food, drink — and even conversation — are not only tolerated, they are welcome.

Exterior of existing Shain Library

Exterior of existing Shain Library

But the existing Shain Library has always seemed closed off from its surroundings, aloof and somewhat forbidding, with heavy façades of corduroy textured concrete, narrow slit windows, and an entry bridge that passes over a sunken, waterless moat. Our design concept was to transform the Shain Library into facility that is more connected to Connecticut College’s arboretum campus while maintaining its architectural integrity as a building of the late Brutalist era. To do this, we focused on three things:


–          Physical Connection: eliminating the moat so that the building could be physically connected to the ground plane, allowing study to spill over from inside

–          Visual Connection: enlarging the windows so that students have more access to natural light, feel connected to the outdoors and provide some transparency to the concrete building

–          Thematic Connection: selecting new materials and finishes that link the building to nature while preserving and enhancing the neutral, subdued aesthetic of the 1974 materials palette.

Once the design team had access to the original 1974 working drawings, it became clear upon analysis that the Shain Library was a perfect example of “Yankee Thrift”: every inch of the concrete structure was designed to maximum efficiency, leaving little spare capacity for the design team to work with. Even new floor outlets had to be located so that they would avoid all steel reinforcing in the floor slab. And, although the concrete structure relied on its continuity to be effective, a central design goal was to free the building of its pancake-like feeling by cutting a large opening in the roof to make a double-height reading room at the top floor; a new steel structure was required below the roof opening in order to maintain structural continuity. When it came to working with the façade, however, the existing building cut us some slack. Although we were prepared for the worst, the precast concrete panels came off easily, allowing us to introduce large areas of glass in what had been a mostly windowless building.

The renovation will transform the entry and the building as a whole, enhance views into and from the library, provide opportunities for social connections between the library floors, and create a modern, vibrant Information Commons with a focus on collaborative learning. A dramatic double-height window and canopy over the entry will welcome the campus inside. New bay windows are created from the original paired slits will give the exterior facades new rhythm and additional glimpses of activity inside. In all, the design preserves and enhances the best features of the Shain Library – its open, flexible plan – and transforms the building’s appearance with a series of rather modest, strategic interventions that bring lightness, vitality and a new appreciation to the 1974 library.

The Shain Library is located in the center of Connecticut College’s campus in New London, Conn.

Design/Build Team:

Architect: Schwartz/Silver

MEP: Garcia Galuska DeSousa

Structural: Roome & Guarracino

Landscape: Kyle Zick Landscape Architecture

Civil: Boundaries, LLC

Project Manager: Diversified Project Management

Cost Estimator: Pan-American Consulting Services, LLC

Construction Manager: KBE Building Corporation

Angela Ward Hyatt, AIA, is a Principal at Schwartz/Silver Architects in Boston, Mass.