Kyu Sung Woo FAIA is no stranger to winning prizes. Four years ago, he was honored with the Ho-Am Prize (aka Korea’s Nobel Prize), the first time the $200,000 award has been given to an architect. Now his Cambridge-based firm, Kyu Sung Woo Architects (KSWA), has been honored again with the Boston Society of Architects and the City of Boston’s Harleston Parker Medal, an annual award that recognizes “the single most beautiful building or other structure” built in Boston within the past 10 years. There’s only one criterion: excellence. Of course, that’s open to the judges’ interpretation of aesthetics, functionality, context and sustainability. Recent Harleston Parker Medals have gone to the New Cambridge Public Library, Parker Community Boathouse, Genzyme Center and the Institute of Contemporary Art.
The jury considered 150 projects, but KSWA ultimately won them over with the Harvard University Graduate Student Housing at 10 Akron Street, a site they considered “very normative. Yet in the hands of this mature and skilled architect, the design is very compelling and complex…. The building continues to surprise and delight even after repeated viewing.” The job, completed in 2008, was a natural fit for Woo, who got his master’s degree in urban planning from Harvard and is currently on the faculty of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, not to mention that he’s completed six other campus projects, designing rooms for roughly 3,000 beds. But even though Woo has more than 40 years of experience, including the 1988 Olympic Village in Seoul, South Korea, he doesn’t approach each dormitory project as just another building with a couple hundred beds and some study rooms; he takes into consideration the specific goals of the university.
“Every institution has a different mission,” he says. “It’s interesting and exciting to see how we relate those missions into different buildings. For example, all the dormitories we have done, none of them have the same unit plan or floor plan. It’s not just because of a site being rural or urban or suburban, but also, I think, each university has a different tradition and a different mission.”
Of course, he considers the location and site constraints, too. According to Woo, the Harvard “site had a lot of issues. [Italian architect Renzo] Piano once designed a museum for it that was never built.” A preexisting water main also had to be accommodated, which is why the entrance is on Akron Street. “But the most pressing issue,” Woo says, “was responding to the site’s prominent location as the beginning of the Harvard campus while also accommodating the residential community’s access to the river. In that sense, our task was to create a building that continued the tradition of the Harvard campus and related to the scale of the river as well as the residential community, while at the same time producing something that is of our time.”
Woo endured “intense public scrutiny in the early phases” of the project, but he worked on a design solution that both Harvard and the larger community eventually supported. “Harvard was very supportive throughout the design process and had very clear direction on their program needs,” Woo says. “We also worked closely with the local community to address concerns about scale and access to the river.... The large mahogany-lined overhang shelters a front porch that preserves and frames community sight lines to the river and creates an entry [to the campus]. Architectural details, materials and colors were selected to be familiar with the context yet are contemporary in texture and surface.” The brick and timber buildings are simple, refined and form “a seamless extension of the campus, recalling the scale and [composition] of Harvard’s traditional brick river houses and nearby wood-sided neighborhood housing, while the color recalls that of Peabody Terrace.” Coincidentally, the Peabody Terrace was designed by José Luis Sert, with whom Woo studied and worked. In this case, however, critics say that Woo has “outdone his master.”
The site itself measures 115,000 square feet and consists of two units, a six-story main block on Memorial Drive and an adjacent three-story block on Bank Street. The two buildings form a U-shaped courtyard that opens up onto a park, creating a natural progression from street to housing to green space. There are 30 different room configurations with roughly 200 beds, as well as a faculty director’s suite, fitness room, study areas, recreational rooms and an underground garage, allowing Harvard to make good on its promise to offer housing to at least half of its graduate, professional and doctoral students. Extra-wide staircases and two-story study lounges distributed throughout the building encourage social interaction and “chance encounters.” Each room has floor-to-ceiling windows that show off exceptional views of the city of Boston; the courtyard, which is planted with seasonal and native New England species; or the Charles River, which is, according to Woo, “one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.”
On top of that, its regionally sourced siding, recycled content, bamboo flooring and wall paneling, low VOC finishes and low energy system have earned the housing project LEED Gold certification. Of Harvard’s 600 buildings, 24 are LEED certified, more than any other university.
Currently, KSWA is working on the 1.5 million-square-foot Asian Cultural Complex in Gwangju, South Korea (scheduled for completion in 2014); a five-star luxury hotel in Accra, Ghana; and the IT Convergence Building for Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon, South Korea, scheduled for completion next year.
Perrin Drumm is a California-born, Brooklyn-based writer with strong feelings about design, architecture, art and film. She holds an MFA in fiction. You can see her work at www.perrindrumm.com.
Top image: Harvard University Graduate Student Housing at 10 Akron Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, designed by KSWA. Photograph by Timothy Huresley.