Does architecture ever make you nervous? I don’t mean the subject. I mean buildings.
Though I have varied feelings about the newer architecture in Greater Boston (and about architecture in general), there is only one building in the area that makes me physically uneasy — the new Boston University Center for Computing & Data Sciences, popularly known as the Jenga building.
I might find other buildings ugly or incompatible with the neighborhood they serve, but the BU data science building is the only one I can think of that — as it comes into view while I’m driving east on Commonwealth Avenue — creeps me out in a primal way: Is it going to fall over? Is it going to grow arms and legs and walk like a Transformer?
No doubt the designers of the building — and BU — have much to be proud of. At 305 feet tall (19 stories), it is “100 percent fossil-fuel free,” the largest carbon-neutral building in Boston, according to the university.
But is that enough to earn our love as a permanent, oversized occupant of our “built environment”?
One of Boston’s most famous buildings, the Hancock Tower, notoriously suffered from a serious design flaw in its early days — the windows tended to pop out. But until that started happening, it wasn’t something you necessarily thought about when you looked at it (“Gee, how does all the glass stay in there?”). When the problem was corrected, the beauty of the Hancock (to my mind; I know there are naysayers) was undiminished. And whatever your own feelings about Brutalist architecture, I think we would all agree that Boston City Hall is not about to fall over. Or walk.
As a visual subject, the BU building has its charms — it looks very pretty lit up in a river-view night photo on the alumni fund-raising pitch that my alma mater recently sent me.
But a couple of inches on a color postcard is different than facing the thing itself as it looms over Kenmore Square. We can admire or disdain how a building restores or disrupts the line of a street, dominates or subordinates itself to its immediate neighborhood, or transforms the skyline from a distance. But our most immediate impression of a building is made by its relationship to our individual bodies, whether we’re craning our necks to see the top of the Empire State Building from 34th Street, trembling in awe before the monumentality of a European medieval cathedral, or trying to operate the “automatic door” at the public library.
On a basic level, the sensation is no different from how we relate to any object in space. Our feeling about a piece of sculpture depends on its size and proportion, whether it’s Michelangelo’s 14-foot-tall David or one of Degas’s tiny ballerinas. But there’s another factor: how a larger-than-life-size physical mass relates to our own center of gravity. On the one hand, there is the basic artistic illusion created by material — giving rock the appearance of flesh, creating the appearance of a heavy mass with light material (“That thing is WOOD?”). But if you’ve ever “observed” one of Richard Serra’s looming COR-TEN steel configurations by walking around or through it, you’ve experienced the strange sensation of feeling your center of gravity shift to accommodate it.
The great medieval cathedrals, the sculptor Auguste Rodin wrote, are built on “the principle of living bodies,” the bodily harmony that results from “the counterbalancing of masses that move.” The Jenga building — its suggestion of unbalanced mass — throws off my own sense of balance. It does more than disrupt the skyline — it disrupts the relationship of my body to the earth.
Meanwhile, Jenga-style buildings are a thing — there are examples in New York, Austin, and Vancouver, and more on the way. (BU prefers comparison to a stack of books.) Andrew Witt, an associate professor in practice of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, said in an e-mail that the building “invites you to see it in the round” and lauded the spiral arrangement of those Jenga blocks. “Together,” he wrote, “the shuffled volumes, spiral twist, and shimmering facade allow the building to show many faces to the city, creating an effect that is both rational and elusive.”
OK, so maybe I’ll get used to — or even learn to love — BU’s new building. When I recently took a walk around the building, I was surprised to find it less imposing from the sidewalk and not nearly as unsettling. I took in the play of light on its reflective surfaces, the alternating patterns of verticals and diagonals. It was dazzling. So maybe Boston’s most spectacular new building will also someday not be its scariest.
Jon Garelick, a retired Globe Opinion staff member, is a freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.