I wish every developer could be as smart as the team that put together the new Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury.
The developer was the city of Boston itself. Compared with the clueless architecture often produced by the private real estate market, the Bolling is a Taj Mahal. It is a good place to work, and it is equally good as a piece of the city.
The city-as-developer punched all the right boxes on the score card of architecture and urbanism. The process that created this building deserves to be a model for Boston redevelopment.
The Bolling stands in Dudley Square. Dudley, once the heart of the Roxbury neighborhood, is now emerging from a long decline. The site on which the Bolling was to be built was an architectural junkyard, a traffic island piled with the decayed remains of three abandoned buildings.
Right from the start, the city made a thoughtful move. One of those three empty buildings had been a handsome store called Ferdinand’s. Ferdinand’s in its day was the biggest furniture retailer in New England. Built in 1901, its architecture was fashioned in the European-style elegance of that era. In shape, it resembled the Flatiron Building in New York, with a rounded prow aiming down Washington Street toward downtown Boston.
The prow, when it was new, sported an architectural frosting of ornamental yellow brick and white marble. That coat, both playful and dignified, has been painstakingly restored at considerable expense. It was an early reminder that the Bolling was going to remember Roxbury’s past.
Except for the prow, all three original buildings have been completely rebuilt and merged into a single structure. Much of the new exterior is wrapped in brown brick, with one wall of granite blocks. Indoors, the Bolling is mostly space for office workers, filled with natural light from windows that vary in size and shape to avoid a corporate look. The initial tenant is the Boston School Department, which has moved about 475 staffers to the upper floors.
The ground floor, which isn’t finished yet, will be an indoor version of a city square, with modest shops and restaurants opening onto the lobby. Still to come is a business innovation center that has been added by Mayor Martin J. Walsh. At a formal ribbon-cutting, not yet scheduled at this writing, the building will be dedicated to Bolling, the first African-American president of the Boston City Council, who died in 2012.
What’s so great about the Bolling? It’s the wisdom of the process by which it was created.
First the city created a client. This was a 19-member Dudley Vision Advisory Task Force, a mix of public officials and citizen leaders who stuck together through the building’s long gestation. In 2006, before there was an architect or even a final site, the city published a Dudley Vision Book, sometimes called “the little purple book.” It lays out a remarkable set of goals.
The building, says the book, “should be the next great public building in Boston,” and the “architecture and design . . . must be iconic and inspirational.” The building must offer “memorable civic spaces that capture the public imagination.” It must “contribute to the civic/public life at Dudley Square, by including retail spaces and civic uses.” It “should use a rich palette of building materials.”
The booklet is full of wise suggestions. One is that “the rich historical context of Dudley Square and Roxbury must be incorporated into the design . . . to maintain continuity between the community’s future and its past.” Hence the restoration at Ferdinand’s.
Not surprisingly, the project attracted a lot of interest among the world’s architects. Many applied for the job.
Again, the city did things right. It created an independent selection panel to choose the winner that included a prominent international architect and an architectural educator. It chose 10 finalists with 10 different designs. The improbable winner was a Dutch architecture firm called Mecanoo, teamed with the Watertown firm of Sasaki Associates.
Mecanoo is well-known in Europe but had never before worked in America. Boston did the opposite of hiring a familiar, well-connected firm for the job. It reached out not only for competence but also for fresh ideas.
Mecanoo’s leader is Francine Houben. I asked her how she’d felt when she first saw the Dudley Square site. “A lot of boarded-up windows,” she replied. She came up with a concept she calls the Ferdinand Village. The Bolling would be the social and market center of a future neighborhood. It wouldn’t look like one big governmental thing, but rather would be a cluster of different sizes and shapes. Like any good Dutch person, she got in the habit of bicycling to the site, which she could see from her hotel in the Back Bay.
Attention is paid to the Bolling’s “outgoings.” The term was popularized by the great landscape architect Frederic Law Olmsted. It refers to the places you can go out to from a building, places that become part of its life. I like to imagine the Bolling as a spider, sitting in the middle of its web, the web being the pattern of city streets — the outgoings — that surround it. Despite a lot of redevelopment, there are still vacant buildings and vacant lots in the Bolling’s outgoings, and you can think of the Bolling as the spider that will draw the web tighter as the streets become livelier. The streets converging on the Bolling give the building a sense of being at the center of things.
Another virtue: The Bolling isn’t designed as a fortification against terror attacks, as are so many other public buildings. Security is present, of course, but not obtrusive. In the tradition of the urbanist Jane Jacobs, the intention is that you keep a place safe by filling it at all hours with people and activity. Bureaucracy, too, feels accessible rather than remote. You can look up from the Bolling’s public lobby to the second floor, where school system staffers are visible through glass walls.
So the Bolling is satisfyingly open. You walk into the lobby through glass doors. As you do so, you’re looking across the ground floor all the way through to the Dudley bus station — the city’s busiest — which sits across the street. The Bolling and its shops — they’re deliberately not high-end — will thus double as a waiting space for bus riders.
There’s good craftsmanship indoors and out. Craft, in whatever style, always sends a message that someone cared. Americans aren’t used to seeing the Bolling’s quality of detail, for example the way different parts of the exterior are “stitched together” — that’s Mecanoo’s term — without visible joints. Or the fact that although the bricks are all the same color, they come in three different surfaces, from very rough to very flat, and they’re laid in varied patterns.
The Bolling building is good architecture. In Boston’s current hot economy and housing crunch, it will surely also be good for business. I’m no demographer, but it seems likely that Roxbury will be the next growth neighborhood for Boston. It’s inexpensive and it’s centrally located. It will be one in a succession of revived places like the South End, Jamaica Plain, Fort Point Channel, and now Somerville. Good solutions usually generate new problems. Roxbury’s may be gentrification.
It’s possible to quarrel with the Bolling’s aesthetics. From some directions, it looks like a mound of brown brick that wears, on the Ferdinand prow, a pale mask embroidered with motifs from historic architecture. The brickwork seems thrown over the building like a blanket, giving something of the look of a factory. Indoors there’s a lot of black metal in window frames and railings and the like. I’m not a fan of the brick or the metal. They don’t look fresh and inventive; they look industrial.
Those are minor points in an admirable building that is the result of an admirable process. The late Mayor Thomas M. Menino, whenever I talked with him in recent years, always seemed to turn the topic to Dudley Square. He is said to have regarded it as his symbolic legacy, his lasting brand on the city. He meant all of Dudley, I think, but also specifically the Bolling. He’d be pleased at what’s been accomplished.
With a new mayor and a changing of the guard, it’s impossible to predict whether the Bolling’s development process could be a template for future development. For public buildings, maybe, but private work is harder to influence. Yet it’s worth remembering that back in 1901, it was a private commercial owner whose ambition and pride created the original Ferdinand’s.