AIA in Boston: New Neighborhood, New Draw

AIA in Boston: New Neighborhood, New Draw

Andy Ryan

Though it endeavored to be an organization with a significant public dimension, the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) was long ensconced in a small, cloistered office in Boston’s financial district—not exactly the type of environment to showcase the public virtues of architecture.

Now in its new headquarters designed by Boston’s Höweler + Yoon Architects in the Fort Point Channel district, BSA has picked up a lot of space, weighing in at 16,000 square feet, with 6,000 square feet for public exhibitions. For all of its expansive new area, much of it—the galleries, offices, and meeting rooms—is spread out on the second floor of a now-31-story tower. The remainder comes as a small (1,500-square-foot) volume on the ground level, acting as an entrance and extra gallery space. Sidewalk frontage, the all-important metric for any public tenant, amounts to a modest 44 feet.

Liberated from its former cramped quarters, BSA faced the challenge of attracting people from the street willing to commit to going upstairs. “The Center for Architecture in New York is all about getting people down from street level,” said Eric Höweler, firm principal and associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “BSA Space is all about getting people up to the second level.”

Left to right: A sculptural stairway between the first and second floors; public exhibition space; the landmarked facade.

To further complicate matters, the facade was off limits, since the space is embedded in an adaptive reuse project within a turn-of-the-century waterfront mercantile building (that, incidentally, won the Boston Preservation Alliance’s 2011 award for best integration of preservation and new construction).

The existing historic shell features large storefront windows. Capitalizing on this visibility, Höweler + Yoon called for an emblem that would both compensate for the lack of sidewalk real estate and entice people upstairs. “The ceiling had to be the facade,” said Höweler. Punching a hole in the ceiling, they dropped a bright, nearly neon-green staircase from the second floor as a sculptural centerpiece. The ¾-inch steel plates merge with the dropped ceiling of the second story and extend down through the punched opening of the first-floor ceiling, where it eventually meets the ground floor, giving the impression of a soffit stretched two stories down.

Key design elements are visible through the facade.

Upstairs, gallery space lines the perimeter, generating a dialogue between the exhibitions and its surrounding waterfront district. Höweler + Yoon placed the offices in a corner of the upper floor separated from the galleries by a glass wall. Two meeting rooms come in the form of islands in the midst of the galleries. Floor-to-ceiling glass that encloses part of these rooms is meant to underscore the public nature of the organization.

BSA Space commissioned Boston-based creative firm over, under to curate the inaugural exhibition. IN FORM: Communicating Boston presents a range of projects, both built and speculative, that directly engage and challenge Boston’s specific urban landscape. The big success of Höweler + Yoon’s layout is that the exhibition works just as well on either side of the gallery’s windows. The BSA’s Fort Point Channel neighborhood is an area very much in transition. Five years ago, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s ICA museum building was an outlier in a frontier of post-industrial urban waterfront. Now, it is part of a district of creative offices, new restaurants, and public waterfront access. Opposite the channel, the string of public parks atop the Big Dig runs its course through the city’s business district. Each of these landscapes represents a major urban transformation that the BSA will now be able to engage, and even view from its new home.