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At Georgia Tech: Brad Cloepfil talk, a new appointment and the fabulous Hinman rehab

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When Georgia Tech’s Hinman Research Building opened in 1939, it marked a historic moment. It was the university’s first free-standing research facility (the Engineering Experiment Station), first modern structure and the beginning of a cluster of edifices — the Architecture Building and the Price Gilbert Memorial Library among them — that still draws enthusiasts of midcentury modernism to campus.

Designed by the Atlanta firm Bush-Brown, Gailey (Harold Bush-Brown was then head of Tech’s architecture program) and new faculty member Paul M. Heffernan, the building represents the pivot point between the school’s Beaux Arts traditions and the new ideas of the Bauhaus.

It was a graceful transition. The architects (the design is generally ascribed to Heffernan) sheathed the concrete-and-steel frame with brick to complement existing buildings, and the attention to detail and proportion, use of wood and repeating curves warmed its functionalist directness.

The 50-foot-tall, high-bay lab was the facility’s heart. Set into a hill, the vast arching space was blessed with light from triple-row clerestory windows on its length and large banks of windows on its width. For a time, visitors could watch engineers at work from a large window just beyond the entrance. (Later, government contracts required secrecy, and the windows were boarded up.)

The latter 20th century was not kind to the Hinman, which suffered through multiple uses, ad hoc changes and neglect. Now it’s a beaut again, thanks to a thoughtful, imaginative $9.5 million rehabilitation by Atlanta’s Lord, Aeck & Sargent and Boston’s Office dA for Tech’s College of Architecture. (Renovation photos by Susan Sanders.)

The Hinman houses computer, high-fidelity simulation and other labs, offices and — those lucky devils — graduate architecture students, whose studios have pride of place in the capacious lab. It is the architectural team’s pièce de résistance. A crane, which once hoisted heavy rotary engines for Tech engineers researching helicopter technology, now holds a floating mezzanine. An equally dramatic new spiral staircase (below), encased in cable mesh, punctuates the other end.

Also animated by elegant pendant lights, the patterns of steel cables, plywood details and even the subtle curve of the crane, this space brings back the Machine Age enchantment depicted in Charles Sheeler’s paintings and photographs and breathes life into the period clichés about factories as secular cathedrals. Awesome.

Dean Alan Balfour spoke of the studio as a “theater of the imagination” and shared his intention to host film screenings, video projects and performances. (Note to gloATL and other enterprising site-specific artists: Get a jump on it.)

The architectural team — headed by Jack Pyburn, who leads Lord Aeck & Sargent’s historic preservation studio, and Nader Tehrani, principal of the Boston firm — balanced the task of rehabilitating the structure for the 21st century with a fierce respect for its past.

On one hand, the architects created flexible spaces to accommodate research and the architecture school’s mandate for multi- and interdisciplinary collaboration. It updated systems to the LEED gold standard and worked with the contractor, the Beck Group, using cutting-edge technology, Building Information Modeling, to generate plans, models and mill work.

On the other hand, they preserved the original plans, materials and intent as much as possible. Pyburn described endless consultations, for example, on how to install thicker window glass without altering the detailing of window frames. Interventions, when required, are peaceable and elegant. The original stair rails were not in compliance with current standards, but rather than replace them, the team inserted plywood panels alongside the maple banisters — turning code upgrades into a sculptural composition.

The project is an exemplar of what can happen when design, preservation, engineering and construction work hand in glove.

NEW APPOINTMENT: George B. Johnston (left) has been appointed chairman of the Georgia Tech School of Architecture. Architect, cultural historian and 26-year member of the architecture faculty, Johnston is the first to hold this position, newly created as a result of a recent reorganization of the College of Architecture into five schools. (The others are Building and Construction, City and Regional Planning, Industrial Design and … Music.)

The announcement is aptly coincident with the opening of the Hinman. As Johnston says, “The digital-age practice of architecture will rise on creative contact between design and research across fields and disciplinary boundaries.”

FREE ARCHITECT LECTURE: The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and the Tech architecture school are partnering to present a free lecture by Brad Cloepfil, founding principal of Allied Works Architecture, at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 19, in the Heffernan-designed Architecture Building. Click here for directions to the event and parking information.

The first speaker in the Contemporary’s “Contemporary Talks” series, Cloepfil is a bi-coastal architect, based in Portland, Oregon, and New York, and he has built quite a practice in museum design. His portfolio includes the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Seattle Art Museum, University of Michigan Museum of Art (above) and Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

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