All posts by Mark Simon

About Mark Simon

Mark Simon, FAIA, received his B.A. in 1968 from Brandeis University with honors in Sculpture, and his Master of Architecture degree from Yale University in 1972. He has served on numerous design award juries and has taught architectural design at Yale, Harvard, the University of Maryland, Carnegie Mellon, North Carolina State University, and the Rhode Island School of Design. He is one of four partners at Centerbrook Architects and Planners in Centerbrook, Connecticut.

Committee on Design Reunion

A reunion of past Committee on Design chairs at the committee’s 2019 Spring Conference in San Francisco. Centerbrook was the only firm present with two past chairs: Mark Simon (first row, second from right) and Jim Childress (third row, third from left).

The national American Institute of Architects has a number of member interest groups, called ‘Knowledge Communities.’ These range from committees focusing on particular types of projects to practice and technical issues. They began 50 years ago with the establishment of a ‘Committee on Aesthetics,’ now the ‘Committee on Design,’ that was fostered by the late Jean-Paul Carlhian, a partner in Shepley Bullfinch, the Boston firm that evolved out of HH Richardson’s office. Jean-Paul felt that design was too often overlooked by the business oriented AIA as well as the American public, and that the institute needed an ‘ombudsman’ group that would promote good design within and without the AIA.

Over the past 50 years, the Committee on Design has thrived. It does important work for the AIA as a whole, selecting awards juries and finding candidates for special institute honors. When it began in 1969, it met at AIA headquarters to discuss issues and to organize the AIA’s design awards and then visit an American city to focus on a particular issue. By the time I joined in 1980, the Committee was visiting two cities as well as Washington, and the visits included extensive tours as well as discussions. This grew out of Jean-Paul’s (and others’) strong conviction that to be truly comprehended, architecture must be seen in place, not through photographs. And that led as well to the requirement that annual national awards finalist buildings be visited by a jury member.

All past Committee on Design chairs were asked to compile a slideshow representing their year for the 2019 reunion. Here are two from Mark Simon’s show.

Recently, Jim Childress and I joined past chairs of the committee in San Francisco to celebrate its 50th birthday at a Committee on Design conference on innovation. It was wonderful to reconnect with many old distinguished friends and see the latest and greatest work arising out of Silicon Valley and San Francisco’s tech culture.

Jim and I are very proud to come from one of only three firms in the country (Pei and Partners has had three) that provided more than one chairman in the Committee’s history. I was mildly horrified that my chairmanship tenure (1986) was the oldest represented at the reunion, but time passes quickly when you are having fun! Jim’s was 2015 and even that seems long ago now.

The program cover and introduction from the 2015 Committee on Design Spring Conference in Providence, R.I., led by Jim.

Collaboration on the Way to a Synagogue


The completion of our additions to The Temple-Tifereth Israel has just been heralded by the results of a unique four-way collaboration in the reconstruction of an old Ark as the central focus of the Temple’s new Chapel.

The Ark has made its way to the newly expanded and renovated Beachwood, Ohio, building from its original home at the University Heights synagogue in Cleveland. Built almost a century ago to house the congregation’s cherished Torah Scrolls, the Ark desperately need refurbishing, but remained an emotional touchstone for its congregation.

The collaboration began with a concept from The Temple’s Senior Rabbi Richard Block, which I integrated with the Chapel design. Engaging two groups of artistic craftsmen, we comingled our ideas in a series of conversations to bring the historic piece back to life in a new manifestation.

The wooden Ark was carefully restored and refinished by Cleveland’s Norbert Koehn, who also made a new Chapel reading table. The Ark doors, which were previously all solid wood, have new, illuminated stained glass designed by ‘Plachte-Zuieback Art Glass,’ the northern California firm of David and Michelle Pachte-Zuilback. Their blue and white glass glows from LED panels behind, transforming the Ark into a luminous presence. The glass is made to look like folded drapes, the traditional cover for the Torah Scrolls inside an ark.

In the new domed space, the ark sits beneath a huge bimah archway. While small in its setting, the Ark’s glow, and that of historic stained glass windows that also moved to Beachwood from the old downtown chapel, shines in the daylight and warms the space at night. It evokes the Rabbi’s vision of a living faith that regenerates through the ages.

Einstein Was Right

Mark Simon Einstein
Einstein Was Right, Image Courtesy of the Eli Whitney Museum

One of my favorite institutions is the Eli Whitney Museum in New Haven. It is not really a museum, but rather an engineering school for kids who make working objects out of everyday household things like rubber bands or mousetraps. This ‘experiential learning’ is great for kids who have trouble learning through language, but also for all kids, who recall more from physical activity than the theoretical. Making things is now a growing trend in every educational level from Pre-K through graduate schools and we’ve been applying that in our designs.

Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School
Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School

One of the primary ways that the museum raises funds is through its annual ‘Leonardo Challenge’. Artists and designers pay for the fun of creating and then donating an artwork or gizmo made with a common article (similar to the kids’ materials.) These inspirational objects change annually and in the past have been wooden clothes pins, thread spools, chains, and the like. The works are sold at a silent auction, raising money twice for the same thing. The concept is ingenious, like the rest of the place.

This year the Challenge is lenses. I asked Patrick McCauley, our superb model maker, to laser cut a grid of grooves in a small board.  I then inserted nine reducing lenses in the grooves at right angles to each other. As you turn the board, the flat grid plane suddenly appears to curve, just as Albert Einstein predicted happens with space and time.  It’s a simple idea, but infinite fun.

On Completing the Yale Bowl

 A model of the original plan for the Yale Bowl, 1914
A model of the original plan for the Yale Bowl, 1914

The original design of the iconic Yale Bowl, which in 1914 would become the largest stadium built since the Roman Coliseum, included an elaborate central entry gate, with three majestic entry arches between two towers, and outside of them a pair of monumental stairs. Such a grand place, set on 12-plus acres and seating 70,869 spectators, surely deserved a grand entrance for its crowds.

But the planned formal gateway to the gridiron pantheon was never built 100 years ago. The Bowl would have to wait for a proper front facade for 95 years, all the while sporting a yawning unfinished notch in its oval exterior. With the Bowl’s centennial looming, Yale decided that it was time to restore it, which it did from 2004 to 2006, although still without addressing the missing capstone.

Before our involvement: a 'temporary' team room was jammed into the notch.
Before our involvement: a ‘temporary’ team room was jammed into the notch.

After the restoration, Yale asked Centerbrook to design a building to fill the notch, and to create a welcoming and celebratory focus for its expanding athletic campus on Derby Avenue. Centerbrook’s solution was the three-story Kenney Center, Jensen Plaza leading up to it, and a bronze statue scanned from the taxidermied original Handsome Dan to stand guard over it all. Larger-than-life Dan and Jensen Plaza, where the names of all football letter winners since 1872 are now carved into the Mount Airy Granite paving, have become a pre-game destination for fans, old Blues, and young Blues, too.

The Yale Bowl turns 100 this fall. Happy Birthday!

Dan as Destination
Dan as Destination
View of the Bowl from the Kenney Center
View of the Bowl from the Kenney Center
Glory Days for varsity letter winners
Glory Days for varsity letter winners

Photos by Peter Aaron/Esto, Chris Volpe

Brava! To a Dream Client and Librarian

Yale University

Several years ago, Centerbrook had the pleasure of working with Margaret “Maggie” Powell on renovations and additions to Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut. Maggie has recently retired from her position running the place ⎯ as the W.S. Lewis Librarian and executive director ⎯ and she will be missed!

The project was daunting because the donor, Wilmarth Sheldon “Lefty” Lewis, had left his Horace Walpole-focused collection of more than 60,000 18th century books and prints to Yale along with his 18th century house, which was in no shape to keep them in proper archival condition. The site was in the middle of one of Americas most historic streets, in the middle of one of America’s most historic towns, and yet we needed to create a functional 21st century archive and research library. Our solution was to design it as a barn attached to the house, fitting in with its other semi-rural neighbors: old outside, brand new inside.


That sounds simple enough but the road to completion was rife with neighbors, many attentive town boards, Yale’s facilities team, and the Walpole’s own staff and board of governors⎯ all of whom had a say in the results. We began with our participatory workshops to get everyone working together, but it was Maggie, behind the scenes, who really kept the project intact throughout. And despite many appropriate opportunities, we never heard her raise her voice! That is a dream client.

collections progress_0-251x394

Maggie has recently organized an exhibition showing the growth and improvements during her tenure: “A Collection’s Progress: The Lewis Walpole Library, 2000-2014” runs through October 3 and is accompanied by a small book that tells the story. We were proud to have been a small part of its progress.

Click for more information about the exhibit and an interview with Maggie.

Designing a Campus of History

Wheatland, the home of President James Buchanan is a distinguished house in Lancaster PA.

Sitting next to it was the not-as-distinguished Lancaster Historical Society building, done in a 1950s neo-Georgian fashion. The two sat side by side on Marietta Avenue, like twins, though the relationship was uncomfortable since Wheatland was clearly the more gifted of the two buildings but both institutions deserved equivalent prominence.

Through an interactive master planning we found support to combine the two properties and create a new identity for the historical society around the corner on President Avenue. By covering the old society library wing, Wheatland would visually reclaim its original, larger piece of property while the society could be notable separately and in its own way.


After much discussion, and since the Society needs to be free of any one period in Lancaster’s history, we decided that a modern design would be best. Nonetheless, the final shape was influenced by historic imagery such as saw-toothed factories …


…and the wagons built in nearby Conestoga.

The new addition to the old library is broken into three connected pavilions, a grand lobby leading to all other parts as well as Wheatland out the back, an exhibit gallery, and a lecture hall.

Continue reading Designing a Campus of History

Playing with Tennis


Yale University needed to double its indoor tennis courts, which were housed in a ribbed metal industrial shell. A feasibility study led to the design of a similar, adjacent shell sharing a new common entry and lobby.


Because of the inherently banal court sheds – dictated by site and utilitarian consideration – the entrance needed to be inviting and fun, declaring that this is a place to play games. It also required a long, covered ramp for accessibility from grade to the raised lobby. Continue reading Playing with Tennis

Building on a Non-Tenured Fast Track

Coming down Prospect Street in New Haven a few years ago one spied a sleek, one-story, silver classroom and office building with horizontal metal siding and long patterns of windows that raced by each other. It was an intriguing curiosity, announcing loud and clear that it was having fun. And yet its demure profile let it nestle neatly into its residential neighborhood.


Long and sinuous, it meandered around a flagstone-paved entry court with floor-to-ceiling glass under a porch at the back, welcoming academics to enter. Continue reading Building on a Non-Tenured Fast Track

Drawing from the Past


Here is a drawing that we recently unearthed while moving files to our archives. It was done by Bill Hersey, a great renderer who did lots of drawings for the office and Charles Moore in the 1970’s. It takes us back to the beginnings of the office here in our mill buildings, showing plans for a mews to the rear of the office around the tail race filled with shops and offices. Though the mews was never built that way and we have far fewer rented spaces now, in some ways this foretold the great activity and many uses that we find around our place. Bill Grover, who was here at the time comments:

This was a sketch, by Bill Hersey, that was made for a little 8-1/2″ square brochure printed on brown charcoal paper, that was used to attract potential tenants to the building. It was done about 1970 while Tom Rapp was the manager of Charles W. Moore Associates and also Mainstreet, Inc. which Rapp figured would earn Moore enough money to support his architectural practice.

It attracted a strange collection of artists, sculptors, graphic designers: a guy who made moccasins, a saw sharpener, a furniture stripper, John Furness (woodworker and shipwright), Charlie Thill (antiques), Gail Miller’s “Yellow Daffodil” gift shop.

Since that time, Mainstreet, Inc. has slowly evolved into Mainstream, Inc. All of the tenants have left or passed away. Centerbrook has grown substantially and now inhabits 95% of the premises. And the lower site was substantially destroyed in the Great Flood of 1982 and rebuilt by Centerbrook. The place is different but remains as charming as ever, a great place to work.