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5 questions: Nick Winton AIA

Nick Winton AIA is cofounder of Anmahian Winton Architects, designers of the ICA Watershed across the harbor from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Once an abandoned copper-pipe factory, the 15,000-square-foot contemporary art space, open from July to early October, sits between two existing industrial buildings in the East Boston Shipyard.

I’ve heard the word “unprecious” used to describe the ICA Watershed and its upwardfolding hangar doors at each end of the space. Is that how you’d characterize it?

Definitely. We wanted the architecture to really nest with its immediate context, which is industrial and unpretentious, to have that same quality of strength. The space has an amazing scale to it: 50 feet wide, 25 feet tall, 300 feet long. We saw the role of design as being both reflective of that context but also new at the same time, and that’s a balancing act. As an extension of ICA Boston, we wanted the building and space to feel welcoming and natural and ungallery-like.

Those doors operate on a daily basis and are open whenever the weather is decent to connect the interior of the building to the rest of the shipyard. You feel that the museum space inside is integral to the shipyard context. There’s that one moment when you’re standing at one end and see right through it all the way back to Boston, and the view visually connects you back to the ica. The doors open up to 20 feet and are used for installing and unloading crates, so the line between art and context can be pretty vague.

Does the polycarbonate façade system echo an approach you took with your firm’s much-lauded Community Rowing boathouse?

We like working with material that can be more than one thing, and the polycarbonate is a great example because it has the properties of an insulating wall; it’s thick but also really light, and it’s incredibly luminous. We’ve used it in other projects; at Community Rowing it’s used in a discreet way, as a background material. We’ve worked with a particular fabricator in Pittsburgh who has helped us develop the right details and operational aspects. One of the things that attracted us to it for the Watershed is that it has a cellular structure and picks up the grain of the other material in the shipyard, like corrugated metal. It’s the modern version of the corrugated material that was on the building originally. We loved it for its luminous quality, that milk-white material that grabs daylight and explodes it into the interior.

What did you decide to leave in place on the site and why?

We walked that line between homage and adaptive reuse. The structure that made up the infill was totally derelict and useless in the traditional sense of being load-bearing. We removed some of the center column and jib cranes that were attached. It was a great example of 19th-century industrial shed territory. Of the two side walls, one in particular — the exterior of the building next door — became our interior wall, an impressive collage of concrete block, structural outriggers, and motorized cranes. One thing we noticed when we visited the site was when the light was cast across that wall, it was incredible, so that drove the key ingredient of the design: the skylight slot that runs along that wall, which [inaugural artist] Diana Thater used as part of her show. We couldn’t resist it. It could have brought too much light into the Watershed, but the curators felt it was going to be our friend in this case.

Were there any neighborhood stumbling blocks?

The ICA made an early and concerted outreach to the constituents to say, “We want a broader audience for what we do and to embrace your community.” There’s a lot of pressure on the cultural core in East Boston, and fortunately for us, we felt welcome. The concern was: Will there be room for some articulation of East Boston? From a curatorial standpoint, the ICA wants the work in the Watershed to always be in the broader context — Boston Harbor, sustainability, resilience. The response was: We’re not a museum of East Boston but want very much to respond to and respect East Boston. The front gallery is dedicated to our location and its history; there’s also comfort in the fact that it’s free — that’s a huge, important piece.

What is your favorite element or detail about the Watershed that no one has picked up on — yet?

My favorite by far, under normal operating circumstances, is when the skylight is unadorned, the light that is cast across the building wall that’s the Watershed’s interior wall but that’s really the wall next door. The light is amazing: It creates an incredible 300-foot-long beam of light that moves across the floor because of the solar orientation. I’ve been fortunate to witness that, working in the space. It’s one that no one really has experienced. — Fiona Luis