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Renovation in Boston
Meet KARO Architects

Staircase Goethe-Institut Boston
Laying down new carpet on the stairs | © Natalie Wichmann

Meet KARO Architects Anke Roggenbuck and Sebastian Kaempf, the masterminds behind the current redesign of the Goethe-Institut Boston. In this interview, they tell us about their experience renovating the new building.

By Natalie Wichmann

On an exceptionally hot day in August, we met KARO Architects, Anke Roggenbuck and Sebastian Kaempf, at 170 Beacon Street to chat about the renovation of the Goethe-Institut Boston. Ducking underneath the black net that has been covering the building for months, we were welcomed by indistinct chatter, electrical humming, and the thumping of heavy boots in the air as the renovation of the historical building is in its last weeks before completion.

Anke and Sebastian, this is your second project for the Goethe-Institut, the first one was for the Goethe-Institut in New York. When you approach a new project, do you have a specific practice you always follow?
Anke Roggenbuck: Getting to know the site is critical and the local users as well because they have their own set of requirements and needs. And I would say understanding the historical character, especially with an existing building, and trying to dig through all the layers to find out what the building went through. For example, here we eventually realized that this would be the first comprehensive renovation of the entire building since 1967, so we dealt with a lot of old systems.
What's the strangest thing you found? 
Sebastian Kaempf: The little panic room maybe?
Anke Roggenbuck [laughs]: Oh yes, the panic room! It used to be the laundry room for the maids and has no windows, it’s buried in the belly of the building.
Interesting. So tell us a little bit about the steps you went through to develop your vision for the renovation?
Sebastian Kaempf: The standard architectural phases within every project are schematic design, design development, construction documents, filing, bidding, and, finally, construction administration. During schematic design, you usually find your vision together with the client and then articulate it further throughout design development. In this case, it was probably eight weeks of schematic design.
Anke Roggenbuck: It took a little bit longer because we realized fairly soon that we had to approach quite a few public agencies to get approval. Another factor that informed our vision was the overall budget.
Sebastian Kaempf: First, we got a little overexcited [smiles] and had way too many ideas about improvements for the Goethe-Institut. Then, we were reminded we were only supposed to change the building’s technical systems and, while doing so, see what we could improve. As a result of that, we realized if we cleaned up the whole sanitary system on all floors and stacked it in one corner, we could create new usable spaces for the Goethe-Institut.
Anke Roggenbuck: So one might say when they come in here: Oh, what actually changed? That is exactly the reaction we embrace now. That is, I guess, in a way what we envisioned. Now everything is hidden and concealed behind the walls. If there is a new detail, than it’s very minimal and delicately integrated.

  • New doorframe at the Goethe-Institut Boston © Natalie Wichmann
    Doorframe ready to be made into a door for the new bathroom
  • Open wall during renovation of the Goethe-Institut Boston © Natalie Wichmann
    Open wall on the third floor to account for wiring in the renovation process
  • New lights at the Goethe-Institut Boston © Natalie Wichmann
    Recessed lights that will be installed throughout the building
  • New outlet at the Goethe-Institut Boston © Natalie Wichmann
    Installing new outlets throughout the building
  • The new server is moved into the Goethe-Institut Boston © Natalie Wichmann
    Moving in the new server and connecting everything with the Munich headquarters
  • Paintbrushes and tools at the Goethe-Institut Boston © Natalie Wichmann
    Painting tools used to freshen up the building
  • Original brass sconces at the Goethe-Institut Boston © Natalie Wichmann
    The original brass sconces in the main event space are back in place
  • New chandelier at the Goethe-Institut Boston © Natalie Wichmann
    The custom-made chandelier in the former library and now salon is installed
  • New shelves at the Goethe-Institut Boston © Natalie Wichmann
    New shelving is installed in the 4th floor offices
  • Moving into the Goethe-Institut Boston © Natalie Wichmann
    Moving back in, new office furniture arrives

Could you summarize your vision in one or two sentences?
Sebastian Kaempf: Not a sentence, but one word comes to mind that was really important throughout: respect. Respect for the original architectural design by Ogden Codman who restored the building in 1900 for [Eben Howard Gay], a banker who used to be a furniture collector, as a backdrop for his Chippendale collection. The respect for this remodeling and to keep it somehow intact, especially in the most representative ground floor, drove our vision.
Let’s get a little bit more into the details. Do you have a favorite historic feature in the building?
Sebastian Kaempf: I really like the rooms that have plaster that actually responds to the use of the room. Especially the grand hall that used to be two salons: the library and the music salon both have different plaster decorations, one showing musical instruments and the other oak leaves and fruits.
Anke Roggenbuck: I would say the central stair impressed me in the beginning the most and to this day I still enjoy walking up and down, looking up and down.
What is your favorite new design feature that you implemented?
Sebastian Kaempf: Maybe the new chandelier in the so-called Adams Room upstairs – the one that has the attached terrace. It will be custom made for the space. We worked with an Italian lighting design company, to create this piece. It’s an assembly of an existing light fixture arranged eight times around a center.
Anke Roggenbuck: It was a long process, remember [to Sebastian Kaempf] we went through a lot of stages? Linear lights, cross lights, stars, suns... 
Sebastian Kaempf: We had an intern working for several weeks modeling it, rendering it – just to get it right. 
Wow, that sounds amazing. We’ll make sure to include it in one of our Reno Recaps on social media, too! Okay, now let’s get down to business: anything that didn’t go as planned?
Anke Roggenbuck: There were quite a few things [laughs]. In the beginning, we opened up floors and noticed that the super structure of the building wasn’t fully intact anymore! In previous renovations or maybe from the beginning, plumbers had just cut floor beams to make waste lines work and we would wonder how it held up for so long. So we had to reinforce and replace some of the beams. That took a lot of time and a greater part of the budget.
Oh my, good thing you came along and fixed it! Last question: When you’re done with this project, what comes next? Any dream projects?
Anke Roggenbuck: A ground-up new Goethe-Institut would be great! 
Sebastian Kaempf: Yes! As much fun as this was and as much as we learned in addition to what we already knew about construction in an existing building, we would love the opportunity to create our own architecture from scratch.