Home to the Pratt Institute's school of architecture, Higgins Hall's new center section is historic preservation with a twist.

» Marking the end of nearly a decade of construction and renovation, Higgins Hall, part of the Pratt Institute's Brooklyn campus, reopened last September. The three-building structure, built in 1868 and gifted to the independent college of art and design in 1965, became the School of Architecture in 1970. Fast forward to 1996, when a devastating fire tore through the hall while it was undergoing renovation by Rogers Marvel Architects, decimating its center building and damaging parts of the north and south wings. While Rogers Marvel continued restoration on the north and south buildings, the school's dean, Thomas Hanrahan, called on Steven Holl Architects to design a new center section.

Its status as an architecture school building led to the idea of a didactic design 'in which all the structures of the different pieces are expressed,' explains Tim Bade, partner in charge on the project from Steven Holl Architects. This is most obvious from the outside, where the weathered brick mass of the existing adjoining structures can be seen through the semi-transparent interlocking U-shaped structural channel glass that comprises the addition's three-story façade, showcasing the structure's interior fluidity and its role as the hall's connective tissue. Giving the school a modern update and bringing new character to the complex's historic aesthetic and landmark status, this 'urban insertion' is a contemporary bridge that carries students between its Victorian flanks. As Rogers Marvel associate Guido Hartray explains, the addition 'allows the building to be knit back together so that the sections feel like there is a dialogue between them.'

The semi-transparent façade and resulting nighttime glow also satisfy a more serious concern-the students' safety. In a neighborhood that was 'pretty rough when we started building,' says Bade, signs of activity after dark were key, especially for a program that requires 24-hour accessibility. The interior illumination casts a bright spot onto the street; Holl placed the open-plan studios on this glowing stage, where the activity of students working late into the night could be broadcast into the community.

Despite the visual distinction between the old and new structures outside, the interior design is fluid. The lighting scheme, realized by Arc Light Design, is minimal yet sophisticated. In keeping with the geometric patterns throughout the entire hall, the center section is illuminated by several variations of one custom linear pendant from Day-O-Lite. Suspended below the expanse of exposed concrete, the reflected light from these fixtures highlights the ceiling's texture and provides an ambient glow to the space. 'We wanted the lighting to be minimal, yet provide enough illumination for the students to be able to work,' explains David Singer, president of Arc Light Design. Light levels are between 20 to 30 footcandles, enhanced by daylight via the semi-transparent structural glass and a double-throated skylight. Together, they produce an even and flexible indirect light that-with luminaires allowing for four light levels and the option to bring in task lamps to supplement the existing lighting-leaves room for students to create their own environment within the studio.

Higgins Hall is historic preservation with a twist, the creation of a space where Pratt's architecture students can feel inspired and learn firsthand the fundamentals of architecture and lighting through the exposed structural elements of the building in which they study. The success of Holl's contemporary addition to the complex's historic fiber is not only a byproduct of his design, but a testament to what a building can accomplish when it is created with a clear directive in mind. This is not just a bridge between two buildings, but an integral piece of a puzzle that has, until now, been missing. sallie moffat


project: Higgins Hall
location: Brooklyn, New York
architect of record: Rogers Marvel Architects, New York design
architect: Steven Holl Architects, New York lighting
designer: Arc Light Design, New York
Photos and illustrations courtesy of Steven Holl Architects