The Cooper Union
School of Architecture


Harvard’s Conservation Department is the oldest fine arts conservation treatment, research, and training facility in the United States. Until its 1996 expansion and transformation into the Straus Center for Conservation, it had remained essentially the same since 1928 and suffered from dilapidation and a wide range of environmental problems. Renovation was imperative for the safety of the staff and collections, and expansion was necessary to allow the conservators’ advances in research and teaching to be realized.

Throughout the programming and design phases of the project, the architects worked closely with the Museum staff to ensure that vital aspects of the Center that had previously suffered were improved and restored by the new design.

The challenge of accommodating the specialized needs of each conservation department (paintings, objects, paper, and analytical research) while maintaining an atmosphere of interdisciplinary exchange was addressed by creating a free plan in which architectonic elements divide the different areas without separating them. This was greatly facilitated by annexing a narrow roof along the west side for shared functions such as seminar, administration, x-ray, and library. The space is unified by a rhythmic sequence of skylights which flood the center with north light.

The Straus Center’s extensive mechanical equipment is discreetly located in a new penthouse on the upper roof. The dedicated climate control system maintains steady temperature and humidity despite intermittent use of powerful spray booths, fume hoods, and fume extractors. A continuous air/vapor barrier and specially designed windows and skylights successfully prohibit the formation of dangerous condensation even on the most frigid nights.

The interior finishes and equipment are completely integrated with the processes, equipment, and functions of the conservation treatment and research work. Each surface material and piece of furniture is assessed in terms of special use, relation to the human body and to the room, to ensure that the conservators’ efforts at this impressive facility are not only efficient, but a pleasure. Three years after completion, the staff remains “ecstatic” with the result.

Visiting Professor, Adjunct Faculty