MASS Design Group, Mikyoung Kim, Shigeru Ban Architects, and others throw their names in the hat to design a new library in Boston’s West End

Books over Beantown

MASS Design Group, Mikyoung Kim, Shigeru Ban Architects, and others throw their names in the hat to design a new library in Boston’s West End

MASS Design’s proposal for a new library in Boston's West End (Courtesy City of Boston)

For some, the sheer utterance “Boston West End” evokes recollections of a neighborhood, just outside Boston’s city center, where thousands of predominantly working class Jewish and Black Bostonians were evicted from their homes practically overnight by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) in the 1950s, amounting to one of the most egregious abuses of Title I of the 1949 Housing Act during the urban renewal-era.

Today, Boston’s West End is home to the Boston Garden, a few hospitals, and midcentury residential high-rises built on top of the former immigrant enclave. Amid growing housing pressures, it’s also set to receive a new public library slash residential tower.

In 2020, the city first revealed plans to demolish the existing midcentury modern structure on Cambridge Street and replace it with a new, 10-story, 22,000-square-foot building to serve communities in both the West End and Beacon Hill. Then in 2021, a programming study was completed by Ann Beha Architects (now Annum Architects) and officials from the Mayor’s office, Boston Public Library (BPL), the Public Facilities Department, and the Department of Neighborhood Development. The programming study envisioned a new structure to accommodate a 1-story library at grade with 9 stories of residential units above. 

Existing library in Boston’s West End (Courtesy BPL)

On August 2, Boston officials unveiled the top eight proposals from developers and architects for the new building after issuing an RFP in April 2023. Submittals came from top notch local firms like MASS Design Group; Davis Square Architects; Stull & Lee and John Ronan Architects; The Architectural Team; Pennrose, DiMella Shaffer, and Mikyoung Kim Design; and The Community Builders and JGE Development. The internationally acclaimed office Shigeru Ban Architects also put their name in the hat in a joint proposal with the Boston offices OTJ Architects and The Michaels Organization.

Joint proposal by Shigeru Ban Architects and OTJ (Courtesy City of Boston)

Since 2017, Boston has invested heavily in its public libraries, many of which are over 50 years old and in disrepair. If announced as winner, this would be Shigeru Ban’s first project in the Bay State. The joint proposal by Ban and OTJ sources locally manufactured building materials. Their design posits an indoor/outdoor amphitheater sandwiched between the library and residential tower for public programming.

MASS Design Group’s proposal is also driven by context. MASS’s bid breaks up the 9-story residential tower into two visually distinguished volumes: The 4-story volume on the ground plane matches the height of an abutting historic building while the remaining 5 stories step back from the site line to make the tower less prescient for pedestrians.

The Architectural Team (TAT), a historic firm based in Chelsea, Massachusetts, uses colorful fins in their design reminiscent of José Luis Sert’s Law School building at Boston University. TAT’s proposal would feature a multi-story library space wedged into the residential tower.

TAT’s proposal (Courtesy City of Boston)

The proposal by DiMella Shaffer, Pennrose, and Mikyoung Kim Design (whose founders recently were on AN’s jury for the 2023 Best of Practice Awards) builds upon the firm’s existing track record of inclusive residential design in the city of Boston. DiMella Shaffer’s residential tower creates a vertical axis between a nearby Victorian steeple, making the 9-story volume appear less static and more contextual.

Proposal by DiMella Shaffer, Pennrose, and Mikyoung Kim Design (Courtesy City of Boston)

The Cambridge-based firm Davis Square Architects focused on the ground plane in their proposal for the new West End Boston Public Library. Their design explores the potential for a dramatic cantilever stretching out above the streetscape.

Davis Square Architects proposal (Courtesy City of Boston)

The joint proposal by John Ronan Architects and Stull & Lee, one of Boston’s oldest Black-owned architecture firms, incorporates a dynamic concrete plinth, perhaps referencing the existing midcentury structure, and uses polychromatic panel cladding on the residential tower.

Stull & Lee and John Ronan’s proposal (Courtesy City of Boston)

CBT’s competition entry creates a strong visual connection between the sidewalk and the library stacks, enticing visitors into the reading area. Last but not least, the proposal by JGE and The Community Builders features an elegant glass volume and visually encapsulating signage to draw in visitors.

CBT’s proposal (Courtesy City of Boston)
The Community Builders’ proposal (Courtesy City of Boston)

The design competition comes amid other major investments city officials have made in Boston’s libraries. In 2017, William Rawn Associates’ major renovation at Boston’s Copley Square Annex designed by Philip Johnson opened. That same year, the city kicked off its Dudley Branch refurbishment project in Roxbury, adding much needed improvements to the original Kallmann McKinnell design from 1978. That same year, the revamped Chinatown Boston Public Library opened, replacing a crumbling 60-year-old edifice. 

In 2020, Utile completed a new, award-winning Boston Public Library in Roxbury. NADAAA finished a new, state-of-the-art, 1-story library which replaced the neighborhood’s aging, midcentury Adams Village Branch. Other existing libraries in Dorchester, including the BPL Fields Corner and Lower Mills Branches, are also set for demolition to make way for new and improved facilities.

Winners of the RFP for Boston’s forthcoming West End library will be announced soon.