"You are an arts school on the Avenue of the Arts; I can understand that you want to look like one."
That understanding came from Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino about the new high-rise dormitory for the Massachusetts College of Art and Design along Huntington Avenue.
This is the kind of commission that architects yearn for: a project that embraces more creativity. The result is what The Boston Globe’s architecture critic Robert Campbell FAIA called “the most interesting high-rise in Boston in years.”
The new MassArt dorm not only represents bold, multicolored architecture in conservative Boston but also is an especially successful example of the collaboration that architects are always talking about. Multiple charrettes and meetings with students, faculty, peer firms and other users yielded a cornucopia of ideas. Overlaid on top of that were the numerous governmental approvals—the State College Building Authority, which would do the bond financing that would make the project possible; the Boston Redevelopment Authority; Mayor Menino’s office; and other entities.
So what artistic idea could hold the project together amid all these conflicting forces?
“We came up with the idea of a tree,” says B.K. Boley AIA, principal at ADD Inc, the building’s architects. “And a very particular tree—the painting The Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt.” The great Viennese painter is known more for his riotously colorful and erotic paintings than being an inspiration to architecture, but Boley and the design team were determined to take the arboreal metaphor and run with it.
“A tree represents growth, change and sustainability, and the students wanted the building to read like a painting,” Boley says. Klimt’s tree became a high-brow muse for the project because of its use of color, scale and pattern.
The building is sheathed in aluminum composite panels of various widths, depths, color shades and glosses.
“Because of the tree concept, we were able to break everything down into very small pieces and contrast one color against another,” Boley says. “In general, the base of the building is darker-brown panels that lighten to a bright glossy gold as the building rises—it’s the tree trunk and the tree top. We picked certain parts of the facade to introduce bright green; contrasting of colors is an old Klimt trick and was also used by the Impressionists.”
The shape of the building’s base is deeply informed by site conditions. Twenty-five feet below the front facade is a curved sewer culvert. The footprint of the building follows the shape of the culvert. Cantilevered on top of this curved base, the building had to be fairly narrow.
“That meant we had to go tall,” Boley says, fulfilling another one of the demands of the stakeholders: that the building be iconic and a beacon for MassArt. So what started out as a 13-story building eventually ended up being 21 stories, its height and coloration already making it a neighborhood landmark.
Sustainability was important to the students, but they felt it should be a function of the building’s inherent design, not achieved through ostentatious gadgets such as wind turbines and solar panels. The building is pursuing a LEED Silver certification.
The new tower is at the crossroads of three institutions: MassArt, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy (MassPharm) and Wentworth Institute of Technology. The pharmacy college worked out a deal with MassArt to occupy six stories of the building as student residences. All three institutions will share the ground floor cafe and the second-floor health center; what the architects call the “Third Floor Pajama Program,” comprising program-like laundry, exercise room and any other activities that students can take advantage of in their pajamas, will be shared by the MassArt and MassPharm residents only.
“It’s going to be an interesting social experiment to try and get these groups to relate to each other,” says Tamara Roy AIA, senior associate principal at ADD Inc and another chief collaborator on the design. "The idea of a large central table in the cafe came from students in Paul Hajian’s design studio, to help MassArt students get to know their counterparts from Wentworth and the Pharmacy School."
The 143,000-sf building will accommodate 493 students when it opens in the fall. It had a construction cost of about $48 million and a project cost of about $69 million, which will be paid for only by the rents that the students are charged and not by tax dollars, says Edward Adelman, executive director of the Massachusetts State College Building Authority.
“I’m an architect myself,” Adelman says, “and I credit the teamwork not just by ADD Inc and the other designers but also the students, including the MassArt architecture students. They’re very informed and had great suggestions.”
Students were especially concerned that the landscape design would “speak to their artistic identity,” says Shauna Gillies-Smith, design principal at Ground Inc. Continuing the tree metaphor, Gillies-Smith designed the building’s plaza fronting on Huntington Avenue as something one might find “at the base of a tree.”
“We came up with the idea of mossy mounds,” says Gillies-Smith. The plantings are surrounded by curvilinear concrete, and the space will be peppered with curved wooden benches. “There will be these little coves that are classroom size for outdoor classes. One of the best compliments I’ve had on the design is that it ‘looks comfortable,’ which is rare in cutting-edge landscape design,” says Gillies-Smith.
The outdoor space also happens to be traversed by the Colleges of the Fenway walking path, which weaves its way through multiple institutions.
“There really was a lack of public landscape spaces in the neighborhood,” she continues. “The location right along the path means that students will use each other’s spaces liberally.”
However democratic the design, in the end it is a building for an art school, and this idea infused every major decision. For example, the MassArt floors on the upper portion of the building will alternate with lounge areas and studio-art workrooms. “Right at the entrance to each floor we put a wall of white marker-board paint. When the students move in, they will customize each floor” with a mural or some other kind of group-produced artwork, says Roy. “This is a residence for freshman and sophomores only,” she adds. “They like their social areas to be shared so they can meet people. For upperclassmen, there are other buildings that are apartment style.”
Both Roy and Boley credit the multiple charrettes for getting critical reaction to the design from the multiple stakeholders, especially the students. “We worked with the students so much,” Roy says, “I used to joke that it’s the Project Runway of the architecture world.”
James McCown is a freelance writer in Somerville, Massachusetts. Specializing in architecture, his writing has appeared in numerous regional and national publications. He holds an ALM (master of liberal arts) in the history of art and architecture from Harvard University.
Top photo by Peter Vanderwarker.