Architecture Focus: The Boston Society of Architects' New Digs
BY JONATHAN LERNER
Boston, home to a great number of architects and the highest concentration of architecture schools of any city in the country, is (not surprisingly) where you’ll find one of the largest chapters of The American Institute of Architects. Yet over the years, the Boston Society of Architects has kept a low profile, lacking a venue suited to public exhibitions and events. But now its strikingly futuristic and largely transparent new home at Atlantic Wharf, called BSA Space, is changing that. The facility’s purpose, says former BSA president Audrey O’Hagan, is to help bring “visitors to the city and give insight into what architects do.”
The Atlantic Wharf complex—right on the waterfront near South Station, The Institute for Contemporary Art, The Boston Design Center, and the burgeoning Fort Point Channel arts community—is an ideal location. Eric Höweler, of Höweler + Yoon Architecture, who designed BSA Space with his wife and partner, Meejin Yoon, sees it becoming “part of your architecture-and-culture circuit.” Direct access to the waterway will allow the BSA to partner with the Charles Riverboat Co. to give architecture tours by boat, slated to begin in April, along the harbor and the Charles.
|BSA Space’s architects, Meejin Yoon and Eric Höweler|
Höweler and Yoon won the BSA commission over 18 other entries in an anonymous competition the AIA held in 2010. It was structured so that smaller, younger architecture firms like theirs would have an equal chance in competing against large, resource-rich ones. The defining element of Höweler and Yoon’s winning scheme for the 16,000-square-foot space, formerly a historic industrial building, was a ribbon-like, bright green dropped ceiling, or soffit, that “moved along the perimeter of the second-floor space and folded down to become a grand stair on the ground floor.” It’s made of medium-density fiberboard on the upstairs ceiling and fabricated with steel plate on the staircase descending to the ground floor. The double-height stair surface can incorporate signage and information displays, while the soffit wraps around the perimeter of the entire interior to define the exhibition areas. From the street, it appears through big windows as a bright graphic element and functions like a wordless sign. “It catches your attention from outside,” says O’Hagan, “as a way of scooping you up and bringing you in.” Boston had plenty of experimental modernism in the mid-20th century. But some of those projects were quite poorly received—most famously, the Brutalist concrete buildings of Government Center surrounding the unlovable, windblown bleakness of City Hall Plaza.
“The city revolted against that, and it affected the architectural community for decades,” says Yoon. Though there have been exceptions—several projects at MIT come to mind—many new buildings have been conservatively styled. “The reputation [for traditionalism] hasn’t changed, even though there is a resurgence of progressive design culture here,” says Yoon.
BSA Space is surely one example, as is its inaugural exhibition, “In Form,” scheduled for display through June. The show has multiple components: One is an interactive archive of Boston architecture. Another uses film to examine three recent civic projects, including the Cambridge Public Library expansion, which grafted a glassy modernist addition onto the ornate 19th-century structure. A third will explore ideas about long-range planning and urbanist coherence for the metro area.
Yoon and Höweler formed their practice in 2005. Professors at MIT and Harvard University, respectively, they aren’t immune to the abstraction that sometimes makes contemporary architectural discourse unintelligible to the layman. But they have also done accessible work, like the ingenious combination of two top-floor downtown Boston condos into a single residence with an interior courtyard open to the elements. And they are committed to making the built environment more engaging and interactive at the human scale—they undertake many modest, experimental projects with that in mind. This spring, for example, portable, pop-up “library reading rooms” they designed will appear in many locations around Boston.
Höweler sees tremendous new energy here not only in contemporary architecture, but also in graphic and industrial design, and the edgy BSA Space as a “symptom” of that. “Boston is a very institutional town,” he says, “but the BSA is an alternative gravitational force where design culture can collect.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDY RYAN