In 2006, Cardinal Egan noticed a crack. It snaked up one of the columns of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a Neo-Gothic architectural landmark in New York City. Around the same time, staff members began finding fallen pieces of mortar on the sidewalk. It soon became clear: something had to be done to restore this 19th-century cultural icon.
Over the next ten years, Murphy Burnham & Buttrick (MBB) Architects completed a full renovation of the cathedral. This $175 million project allowed MBB Architects to upgrade the building’s infrastructure, install a geothermal heating and cooling system, and repair the aging exterior and interior surfaces. In 2019, the renovation won an American Institute of Architects National COTE Award for excellence in sustainability.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see the cathedral first-hand while on a trip to New York City with my family. As my dad and I stood on 5th Avenue, admiring the immense structure in front of us, I was struck with an incredible sense of awe. The cathedral is a stunning example of Neo-Gothic architecture, with pointed arches, stained glass, and ornate details. The modern interventions do not detract from the cathedral’s design integrity. They reinforce, improve, and preserve the structure. I am incredibly impressed with MBB Architect’s renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It is a beautiful testament to the ways in which modern technology can enhance and improve existing buildings.
Last week, I had the privilege to discuss this project and other renovations with Jeffrey Murphy, a founding Partner of MBB Architects. Murphy is a true professional in the field. He holds a Masters in Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Virginia. At Harvard, he received the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture Research Fellowship and the post-graduate Wheelwright Prize. Though his experience in the world of architecture is far-reaching, his projects all reflect an intense commitment to sustainability. In fact, Murphy’s work with MBB Architects proposes a new future for architecture: one in which architects focus not on creating new structures from scratch, but on repurposing old buildings to fit modern times.
T: What motivated you to pursue a career in architecture?
J: I came at it indirectly. I had two grandparents who were very creative, one of whom was a builder. I spent a lot of time as a child hanging around construction sites and seeing things being built. I was just really captivated by that. During high school, I did various projects in the construction industry. I worked in construction sites sweeping out houses. I even had a little business building sheds for people’s backyards. I painted houses. I did a lot of stuff that was very peripheral to design and architecture. When I went to college, I actually started studying science. After I got a load of chemistry, I realized that it wasn’t for me. I bounced around a lot and finally landed on architecture. It ended up being something I was really fascinated with. The rest is history.
T: I was talking to Eric Randolph, a sports stadium architect, and his wife, who is also an architect. They expressed a lot of interest in your work and how you built your firm. Could you share a little bit about that process? What kinds of experiences did you have before starting MBB and why did you make the switch?
J: I initially worked for big firms. I worked for well-known firms. I worked at Pei Cobb Freed, which is a big international firm. I worked for a firm called Gwathmey Siegal. I got some really great experiences at both places. Since both of my parents had started their own businesses, I wasn’t afraid to strike out on my own. It was something I watched my parents do. After working for around 5 to 6 years, I decided to start my own firm. I literally rented a desk space somewhere, but I didn’t have a lot of work. I ended up doing a lot of “grubby work.” One of my projects was all about replacing bathrooms and windows in a building. There were no real design opportunities there. But, I had the good fortune of being married to my wife. She had a job and was able to support us while I wasn’t making any money. That was really critical. I couldn’t have done it without her. As a one man firm, I slowly got some work and hired a couple of people. I ended up going into a partnership with my friend, Mary Burnham, and her dad, Harry Buttrick. Together, we grew the practice. I feel like it was a bit of luck to have wound up working with those two individuals. As a single practitioner, it was sort of hard to make ends meet. It was only when we started doing bigger projects that it became financially worthwhile. In some ways, by having my own small firm, I was in the arena. I could connect with other people and start a business. I don’t think that would have happened if I was still working in one of those big firms. It wasn’t really a predictable path, but that’s how it happened.
T: What has been your favorite or most difficult project and why?
J: Our practice is really great because we have a lot of different kinds of projects. Working on St. Patrick’s was an incredible privilege. It was just so interesting. I feel like I grew tremendously as a professional. I learned a lot of things I never knew. For instance, I never knew anything about stained glass. Now, I know a lot about how to restore stained glass. We also did a really lovely little project for UNICEF where we designed classroom furniture for Sub-Saharan Africa. The whole idea was to enable small shops in countries to build their own furniture instead of buying plastic furniture from China. There was definitely a sort of “feel good” aspect in terms of what we were doing for local communities. But it was also really interesting. We traveled to Africa and we traveled to Copenhagen. Both of those projects were just infinitely fascinating to me. They were just fun, really fun to work on. Those kinds of projects are really going to define my career. They’re also all really hard for their own reasons. There’s no easy architectural project. You might as well just do great projects if you can. Everything in architecture is a process. There’s nothing that comes easy. There’s a lot at risk. You can get sued. So, you might as well just do work that is the very best it can be. That’s how we approach projects.
T: As I was looking through the MBB website, I saw that your firm has adapted a lot of old buildings for new purposes. Specifically, I looked into the adaptive reuse of the Bainbridge House as the Princeton University Art Museum and an old service building as the Riverside Park Volunteer House. What does this process look like? How does your team design and execute these transformations?
J: Well, it’s funny. I attended the University of Virginia and I’ll actually be on a panel next month talking a bit about this topic. When you’re in school, and certainly in my day, you really focused on designing buildings on virgin sites. You didn’t really consider dealing with old buildings. But when you get into the practice, you realize that there are a lot of old buildings out there. There’s a tremendous opportunity to reinvent them, to think about how they’re used, and to make them more sustainable. In the decades ahead, I think that most projects will focus on taking buildings and making them higher-performing. Though the process of adaptive reuse is something I kind of fell into professionally, I realized what an incredible opportunity there is to do wonderful things with existing buildings.
T: Since entering college, I’ve taken a few architectural history classes. Last semester, we talked a lot about the conflicting reconstruction plans for Notre Dame. I thought it was really interesting that you worked on renovations for St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Could you talk a little bit about that process? Do you think restorations should always adhere to original styles or reflect the modernization of changing times?
J: If you look at the St. Patrick’s project, you will see a lot of modern glass and steel interventions. We were very clear that the building was a historic artifact, but we also added things that weren’t around in the 1870s. We were very intentional about that. My view is a little bit of both. It depends on the situation. There could be reasons to make it clear that a new component of a building is from 2023, even though the rest is from a series of building campaigns in the past. There was this big debate over what the spire should look like during the reconstruction of Notre Dame. They decided to make it look like the original one. I’m fine with that, but I also could have seen there being some modern craziness instead. As I said, it all depends. I was actually on a panel about Notre Dame a few years ago. If you look at the St. Patrick’s project, you’ll see that we actually installed a mist system which extinguishes fires. If Notre Dame had had that system, it probably wouldn’t have had that fire. So when you’re working on old buildings, you have to make them resilient. Resilience is about making your building resistant to natural forces such as fires and other disasters. It’s all about making buildings that will be able to survive catastrophic events in the future. It’s tied into sustainability.
T: I also noticed that your firm has built both synagogues and cathedrals. Are there any considerations that you have to keep in mind when building and renovating places of worship for different religions?
J: We call ourselves mission-driven architects. We’re very much interested in the mission of our clients and how the architecture we design helps support or promote their mission. How does it support their culture? How does it reflect their culture? Every project is really an exploration into that. Even different synagogues have different emphases. You really need to get into the head of your client and understand what they’re all about, what their culture is all about, what they’re trying to do with their organization, and what their values are. Then, you have to somehow build a kind of design construct in order to help them realize those things.
T: Part of my motivation for interviewing different architects is to expand students’ understanding of how to become an architect. Do you have any advice for undergraduate students who want to pursue careers in architecture? What skills and experiences do you think are valuable at the undergraduate level?
J: First of all, I think there’s real value in architectural education. It’s a really unique way of approaching problems and thinking about things. I know many people who have studied architecture but didn’t go on to practice architecture. In fact, my wife studied architecture in college and graduate school but has had an amazing career in television, social media, and the academic world. There are a lot of things that you learn in architecture school that you can put to good use. I also think that there are a lot of really interesting tangential things that you can do with an architecture degree. For instance, sustainability is one of the biggest issues and challenges of our time, especially for someone your age. You’re going to live in a different kind of world than the world we’re living in right now. If you really want to be a part of the solution, you should focus on sustainability. It doesn’t have to be just about designing buildings. There are people who just figure out how to make buildings sustainable. There are people who work on sustainability policy. There are all sorts of ways that you can contribute towards making the world a greater place. Certainly, an architecture degree or a building sciences degree can really help you do that. I would encourage people, if they’re at all interested in building sustainability and design, to consider studying architecture. There is so much that you can do with this kind of degree. Maybe you become an engineer. Maybe you do something else that gives you a speciality. But, 40% of the carbon being produced right now is coming from buildings. Learning about buildings and how to make them green is a really great way to make an amplified impact on the environment. I really encourage that.