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Among the daily parade of students and faculty crossing campus in the shadow of the BU School of Law tower are some who wonder why the building, widely considered one of the less attractive on campus, is being so meticulously refurbished. Others, some who love it and some who don’t, acknowledge the structure’s iconic status as BU’s half-century-old beacon to those other universities across the river.

In fact, the 18-story building is an architectural treasure, one of a complex of circa 1960s buildings designed by the late Barcelona-born architect Josep Lluís Sert (Hon.’70), a friend of Picasso and Miro, a protégé of Le Corbusier, and a 1939 refugee from the fascist Franco regime. Sert headed the Harvard School of Design from 1953 to 1969, where he was a mentor to Leland Cott of the Cambridge architectural firm Bruner/Cott, the firm that designed both LAW’s renovated tower and the recently completed Sumner M. Redstone Building. Sert’s bold designs, many employing unmasked reinforced concrete, include Harvard University’s Holyoke Center, now the Smith Campus Center, long the object of a love-hate relationship with those it dwarfs at ground zero of Harvard Square.

“We’re sort of infatuated with Sert,” says Cott, whose team on the LAW project includes principal architect Lynne Brooks and senior associate Peter Ziegler. Before it could tackle the tower’s weathered, poured-concrete exterior and cramped, dated interior, the firm “had to prove to BU, and to ourselves, that this was doable,” Cott says. “We had to reassure the dean that it was going to be okay, because a lot of people have bad memories of what it was like to be in the tower building, and they couldn’t see how it could be saved.”

Architects got BU’s blessing to transform the School of Law tower into an office building and put all of the assembly functions, such as classrooms and new social space, in a second, new academic building, which would become the Sumner M. Redstone Building. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

“I think the single biggest design and programming realization we made was that the tower, with its very small square footage, was never really suited to being a good classroom building,” says Ziegler.

The architects got BU’s blessing to transform the tower into an office building and put all of the assembly functions—classrooms, new social space, new space for clinical work—in a second, new academic building, which would become the Sumner M. Redstone Building, Cott says.

Today, the tower, with its lattice of external green and red panels restored to its original shine, reflects Sert’s vision, while inside it meets the academic and human needs of its occupants far better than it had done previously. Built in a style often referred to as the brutalist (from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete”) school, the tower had fallen victim to the ravages of time on the outside, and never really suited its purpose inside. Chronic traffic jams in its six small and unnervingly slow elevators kept students waiting as long as 20 minutes to move between classes. The cross-ventilation and air conditioning systems were outmoded and the building lacked suitable meeting spaces. The awkward ground floor entrance was accessed from a wind-battered plaza (now downsized to welcoming landscaped gardens and paths) used only for foot traffic.

The renovated tower and new Redstone Building now form a cohesive complex worthy of a law school founded in 1872. That cohesive complex comes at a cost of $184 million, several million less than the price tag for a new facility in the same spot, according to Gary Nicksa, the University’s senior vice president for operations.

“We were charged with taking the vertical culture of the law tower and making it horizontal,” Cott says. That’s being done by revamping the tower with new mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, larger bathrooms, and spacious modern facilities to house the school’s administrative departments, faculty offices, moot courtrooms, and writing programs.

The Redstone Building opened in summer 2014, and the tower will reopen in fall 2015.