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Legacy Circle: Leland Cott FAIA

Leland Cott FAIA
Founding partner, Bruner/Cott & Associates
Senior adjunct professor emeritus, Harvard GSD

What are you working on now?

We’re working on a number of very interesting projects at the moment. Each represents a specific area of interest and intellectual inquiry. For example, our long-term involvement with the design of intelligent, sustainable architecture continues to mature with our Living Building Challenge projects, which include the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, now under construction, and a study for the Yale Divinity School. Both are new buildings that will reach well beyond current high-performance sustainable standards into the world of Certified Living Buildings. 

Our firm’s work with historic preservation and adaptive reuse continues but now includes a number of important mid-20th-century buildings by noteworthy architects. We’ve been working with Boston University since 2008 on a masterplan for the continuing use of its Josep Lluís Sert-designed law school campus. Our work there is now complete and includes the original riverfront tower, the Pappas Law Library, and the new 100,000-sf Sumner M. Redstone classroom building. At Harvard, we are working as the architect of record with Hopkins Architects on another Sert-designed building, the Richard and Susan Smith Campus Center at Harvard University, formerly the Holyoke Center. We are also designing a new building for the School of Business on the Paul Rudolph campus at the University of Massachusetts (UMass)/Dartmouth, and we just completed a new dining facility in the Marcel Breuer building at UMass/Amherst.

Our 20-year relationship with MASS MoCA [Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art] is ongoing with yet another large building in process to hold exhibits by Robert Rauschenberg, James Turrell, and Louise Bourgeois, among others. We are also involved with designing sizable additions to existing historic properties. The latest example of this is the Lunder Arts Center at Lesley University in Cambridge, where we moved a decommissioned church and then designed a new arts building between it and an adjacent former Sears, Roebuck and Co. store to create an entirely new complex. Also at Harvard, we are working on the latest renovation to the Lavietes Basketball Pavilion, which began with our original designs in 1982 and 1996. Lastly, in Waltham, we have just completed the multiyear adaptive reuse of the former Waltham Watch Company buildings on the Charles River for residential, commercial, and retail uses.

We have many other interesting and important commissions on the boards, but I will leave the list there for now. One last thing: We were just named to the 2015 ARCHITECT 50 list of top firms for the first time, and we are very excited about it.

How do you/did you/would you explain to your mom what you do for a living?

My mother passed away 36 years ago, so I wasn’t able to talk with her very much about my career beyond the first few years. She did always have a sense, though, that architecture and I were a good match. Both of my parents had a refined eye for design and aesthetics, so I don’t think I would have had to explain much. I do remember saying to her, “Don’t worry, Mom; it will turn out OK.” Now I would want her to know that it turned out just fine, after all.

What inspired you today?

After more than 40 years in Cambridge, I recently designed and built a house for my wife and me in Concord. I love living in that landscape and feel inspired every morning when I awake and look around me.

What are you reading?

I read more nonfiction than fiction. I’ve just now finished The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown that is a look back at the mid-1930s University of Washington men’s eight-member rowing team and their route to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the Gold Medal. I don’t usually read New York Times best-sellers, but the theme of this book—the importance of teamwork—caught my attention. I’ve recently finished Lynsey Addario’s book, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. It’s about her career, an obsession really, about her work as a photojournalist in harm’s way in troubled areas of the world. Also, Alan Lightman’s book Screening Room: Family Pictures, which is an autobiographical account of growing up in Memphis, Tennessee during the 1950s. A few others on my nightstand at the moment are Guernica, The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon by Gijs van Hensbergen and, once again, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

As far as books about architecture are concerned, I do find myself coming back to Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen from time to time. Both were outstanding architects intent on designing the best buildings possible rather than being pre-occupied with a particular style. 

Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?

I think I’m about where I had hoped to be at this point in my career. This is a difficult profession that takes someone a long time before you’re good at it. I like what I do, so I keep on doing it. In 1994, I was invited to the Harvard GSD as a studio guest critic. What I thought would be a one-semester event turned into a 17-year academic career teaching design studios and seminars. Teaching helped me become a more disciplined thinker and designer. What I didn’t want is to have my career be only about architecture and the design aspects of the profession. It has evolved into a much broader pursuit of the built environment that involves urban design and planning.

What inspired you to support the BSA Foundation as a member of the Legacy Circle?

Mostly wanting to be involved in helping [to] create ways that the BSA could have [a] broader influence and impact on the city and its decision makers, as well as fostering and supporting the careers of young people, which is vitally important to the future of the profession.

Thinking about the power of collaboration and design to change lives in Greater Boston, how can the Foundation harness that power to help build a better Boston?

The Foundation should develop into an organization of many talented individuals with great ideas so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It should be in a position to take on large challenges and become a forum for idea generation and decision making.  

Can you remember the first time you understood the relationship between design and quality of life?

I started taking drawing and painting lessons at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City when I was 10 years old and continued until I was 16. During that time, the museum featured a Japanese house constructed in its outdoor garden. I still remember being there, looking at the plans and sections of that house that were displayed on the wall and eventually understanding the relationship between those drawings and the feelings of serenity in the house.

Who or what deserves credit for your success?

That’s a complicated question because as is true of all people, it’s a combination of many factors along with some luck. My business partner, Simeon Bruner, and I have been together for 43 years, and so I do believe he deserves great credit for what he has brought to our collaboration and for hanging in there. I do feel that staying focused on our core values, goals and overall business plan has contributed to a great deal of our success. At the same time, I think I was fortunate to have grown up in the 1950s and studied architecture in the 1960s. Those two decades were particularly defining moments in our history, and the lessons of that time remain valuable to me to this day.

If you could give the you-of-10-years-ago (or longer) advice, what would it be?

Think about your goals for the next decade, and devise a plan [for] how to achieve them. These 10 years will be the ramp-up to your next 10 years. Get to it!

What do you love about Boston and why?

I like Boston for its modest scale and generally high quality of lifestyle; but, having said that, I should go on record that I am a New Yorker through and through and do love that city. I’m often surprised, given the brainpower that resides here, that Boston isn’t a lot better. We should have better housing, better streets, and a much better overall infrastructure. We do, however, have great educational and healthcare institutions here, but for a city with many talented architects, we have far too many unfortunate-looking buildings. Most recently, the squandered architectural design, planning, and urban-design opportunities in the Seaport District has, in my opinion, been a real setback. 

If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?

I have always liked Woody Allen’s line that “90% of life is showing up,” but that’s a bit trite because it is really more than that. So I think my bumper sticker would read “It’s the last 10% that makes the difference.”