Let’s start next door. Enter the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (I.M. Pei & Associates, 1979) on Columbia Point at the University of Massachusetts–Boston, and you find yourself on a balcony, looking into the space-frame tower that will later complete your experience. A placard explains the water view: “When Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis sought the perfect location for the JFK presidential library, she looked to the sea that President Kennedy loved so well.”
The truth is rather more complicated. Siting and designing the library was a dreary, 16-year slog of shrinking expectations and genuine heartbreak. Kennedy himself had chosen an urban site at Harvard, and Pei designed two different schemes accordingly, but logistics and community opposition stalled the project for a decade. In 1975, the Kennedys turned to maritime sites, and landed at Columbia Point—home to U. Mass. and a garbage dump. “It was a backwater, literally,” said Ted Musho, Pei’s associate partner on the project. “[U. Mass.] went there for the same reason we wound up there: Nobody else would take us. We’d been thrown out of the best site in the world, and here we are. So what do you do?”
To sell the family on the dump as the best remaining option, said Musho, “We rented a big flatbed truck and we loaded everybody on, and we drove out as far as we could onto the muck, and I remember Mrs. Kennedy saying, ‘Where are you proposing putting the library?’”
Finally the site was refined, but “I.M. suffered. I mean, he suffered” from the endless compromise, said Musho. And now the budget was tight: “It should have been white marble, white granite—if we had the money! There is nothing about the building that was commensurate with the aura of the president’s name on it! It’s an inexpensive presidential library.” The resulting complex has always had a faintly depressing air, not because it is a memorial to a slain president but because, as such, it sat alone, and vaguely underinspired, in a vaguely suboptimal place.
It is within this context that Rafael Viñoly has produced a resoundingly smart, sensitive design for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate that quietly transforms the entire site. Both architecturally and programmatically, John seems happier with his brother beside him: His building is no longer so isolated, and the tragic matter of his death is relieved by Teddy’s clever, youth-oriented program centered on model Senate proceedings.
The institute is an object lesson in the power of limitations. Ted wanted a building that complemented John’s but did not compete with it. Viñoly’s symmetrical, low-rise plan leaves the spotlight on Pei’s geometries, but responds to them with aligned triangular “wings” and a subtler vertical mass—gray metal composite to Pei’s black glass. The axial entrance path alludes to neoclassical Washington, D.C., creating what partner David Rolland called “a procession, a formal entry into the building.” A thin strip of gravel at the building’s edge, where concrete meets lawn, is brilliant but nearly invisible; it could be thickened.
Entering the lobby, you face a long, rich wall of Virginia mist granite, in the center of which a small well leads to a pair of tiny, traditional oak doors: the Senate chamber. First you’ll circumnavigate it, learning—through electronic projections on the outside walls, and your tablet computer—how hard it is to hammer out a bill that can be voted into law. Hidden classrooms on the perimeter allow school groups to test the process in depth.
The corridors are masterfully done. Painted in deep, warm grays and floored in polished concrete, they are softly lit to avoid the gloom of a cinema. Among the grays are dark oak benches and signs (both by exhibit designer ESI Design) that, while modern in form and typography, allude in tone and finish to the Senate’s historic furnishings. Above, a central light strip is flanked by gently pitched ceiling planes. Floor and ceiling joints are both recessed, with indirect lighting at the floor, to make the space “look more architectonic rather than more massive,” said Rolland. Hallways this simple could easily be soulless; these are thoughtful and comfortable. You then experience the Senate replica—with its yellow gallery walls, navy and red textiles, Levanto marble, cherry desks, and oval tray ceiling—as a sunburst. Guests are encouraged to stage a floor debate on an issue of the day, and actors start the process.
Viñoly’s restraint is important not in the tired sense of adherence to high-modern lines, but in its palpable respect for the older design he was effectively adjoining. His team worked with the materials, formal language, and color palette they were given—in an age when most additions to historic structures use none of the three, and often lean on glass as a way to evade them all. This is the polar opposite of a trend-driven building, and the effect is as fresh as the breeze off Dorchester Bay.
Some of the errors were, so to speak, forced. The lobby is empty. Viñoly’s original design had a giant ribbed skylight throwing bands of sun on the floor, but the budget cut it to one strip. Without such a flourish, the space needs some iconography or a pair of ESI’s oak benches. The landscape, by Sasaki Associates, is inadequate, especially where windows look to the bay past JFK’s loading dock; a tight property line tied the designers’ hands. Traffic circulation is a work in progress. And the Miesian gleam of the glass entry confounds some, leading to embarrassing makeshift signs: “Please find door here ––>.”
Would Viñoly ever have sketched this prone form in isolation? Of course not. But he gave his site and his clients, who in this case go well beyond the Kennedys, exactly what they needed: a taste of redemption.