Another One Bites the Dust: Paul Rudolph's Burroughs Wellcome HQ

Renovation is always a better use of resources than demolition and replacement.

Burroughs Wellcome Building

Joseph W. Molitor/ Columbia University, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Department of Drawings & Archives.

One of architect Paul Rudolph's biggest and most important projects, the Burroughs Wellcome headquarters and research center in Durham, North Carolina, is being demolished. According to the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation*:

"It is one of Rudolph’s largest constructed projects: So one sees, substantively, how a brilliant designer worked out his ideas about siting, planning, spatial organization, interiors, and finishes in a comprehensive, large-scale way, and over a variety of conditions and spaces."

The current owners, United Therapeutics, called it “unsafe, not environmentally sound, and functionally obsolete.” But don't worry, according to the Herald Sun, when they build a new structure on the site "there will be a Paul Rudolph Foyer inside."

Treehugger has written many posts about the loss of Paul Rudolph buildings, asking a decade ago "why are so many Paul Rudolph buildings being torn down?" One reason so many of his Florida buildings have been lost is that he was a master of melding "modern modularity and technology with sensitive siting, daylighting, natural ventilation, and aggressive shading against the relentless sunshine." This made them hard to air-condition and after Columbine, hard to secure. But his buildings were light and airy and used materials sparingly.

Burroughs-Wellcome Dining Area
Burroughs-Wellcome Dining Area. Paul Rudolph Foundation

As I noted in my review of the Walker Guest House: "During World War II, Rudolph had worked as a naval architect and learned about thin-shell construction, the economy of means, and the efficient use of space. 'I was profoundly affected by ships,' he said. 'I remember thinking that a destroyer was one of the most beautiful things in the world.' He took what he learned in the shipyards and applied it to his post-war houses." You can see that in Burroughs Wellcome. He also designed it to last a long time, certainly longer than it did; according to the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation, it was a design for growth.

"Rudolph was concerned for the future – of cities, homes, education, and of individual buildings. He knew that, in very tangible ways, buildings are never finished, and must be flexible to accommodate the future. Rudolph designed Burroughs Wellcome with change and expansion in mind: its striking geometries and planning were designed for growth. In fact, this was not just one building, but a growing complex: the main building being designed in 1969; and with extensions added in 1976, 1978, and 1982 – that latter date including work on a master plan for the site. [In architecture, as in other fields, there’s no greater compliment than “repeat business.”]

The building is part of the Research Triangle Park, developed in the early sixties as the largest research park in the USA to be a "brain magnet." The building itself was prescient of all those modern management ideas about offices as places where creativity comes from interaction. According to the Foundation:

"Rudolph sought to create spaces of variety and richness, ones which would allow for varying uses and inspiring experiences. Moreover, he saw that overlapping spaces had the potential to increase communication among a building’s users – a significant advantage in a building for research, corporate coordination, or education."
Demolition 29 November
29 November 2020 demolition progress. Getharding via Wikipedia

"Renovation is always a better use of resources than demolition and replacement."

That's a quote from architectural critic Alexandra Lange, from our discussion of the loss of the Union Carbide Building in New York City. The owners of the Burroughs Wellcome building claim that it is not environmentally sound, but replacing an existing building often creates more upfront carbon emissions than are emitted from building operations.

That's why the Architects Declare document calls for architects to recognize they must "upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon-efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice."

section through Burroughs-Wellcome
Paul Rudolph Foundation

But this is even worse, taking down such an important, special building. As the president of Burroughs Wellcome noted at the opening ceremony: "This building is an exciting and ingenious combination of forms [in which] one discovers new and different qualities of forms and spaces . . . a splendid climate for scientific scholarship and for the exchange of ideas."

In these times, that is exactly what is needed.

Screen capture. Architects Journal

In the UK, the Architects Journal has started the RetroFirst campaign to promote renovation and change the rules; owners of buildings write off a portion of the value every year, and eventually, it becomes worth their while to knock it down. Will Hurst writes:

"It doesn’t have to be this way. And, in light of the climate emergency and the UK’s legal commitment to a net-zero economy by 2050, it cannot remain this way. The AJ’s RetroFirst campaign proposes a major reduction in the consumption of raw materials and energy in the built environment through the adoption of circular economy principles. It opposes unnecessary and wasteful demolition of buildings and promotes low-carbon retrofit as the default option."

It doesn't have to be that way in North America either. This building could have and should have been saved. We need a RetroFirst campaign here too.

See also: Happy 100th Birthday, Paul Rudolph

*This article previously credited quotes to the Paul Rudolph Foundation, a different organization. They have been revised to the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation.