scorecardresearch Skip to main content

A new office tower for a new office era

One Congress may show a way forward for commercial real estate.

One Congress towerEnzo Figueres

Pelli Clarke & Partners, the New Haven-based architecture firm, is changing the skyline of Boston. Founded by the late, legendary Cesar Pelli, who was dean of the Yale School of Architecture during the 1970s and ‘80s, the firm just completed One Congress Street as part of the Bulfinch Crossing project and is busy with the office/residential tower that is rising above South Station.

From first appearances One Congress is, compared to South Station Tower, the superior work of architecture. This comment is colored in part by my own aversion for the marketing machinations of Boston luxury residential high-rises — the “celebrity” interior decorators, the gushing about views, the reality that such structures are primarily meant not for Bostonians but foreign billionaires and out-of-town tech moguls. Consider Michael Dell’s purchase of the penthouse at One Dalton Street for $34 million in 2017. (Dell recently put it on the market for $35 million.)


One Congress, also known as the State Street Building because of its largest tenant, is a crowd pleaser. Because it is located in a neighborhood of few high-rises, it is instantly visible from East Cambridge and Logan Airport, among other vantage points. Its exterior does a deft ballet, wrapping around the structure and culminating in a jaunty curtain wall swoop at the building’s apex.

One Congress tower (center)Enzo Figueres

“It’s like a well-dressed gentleman walking east toward the waterfront,” said John Lind, a senior associate at Pelli Clarke & Partners. “There’s a shirt and then a vest and then a coat, all billowing in the wind.” But for all of its free-form exterior, it actually yields practical floorplates that are near-perfect ellipses and which feature broad, column-free interior spaces. “We thought it made sense to create a building with a clean, simple form. We basically took an ellipse and extruded it,” Lind said.


Bulfinch Crossing comprises One Congress, The Sudbury residential building, and the future Two Congress, another office building. The block was master-planned by local CBT Architects, which also served as the architect of record for One Congress.

“Bulfinch Crossing is important because it abuts Bulfinch Triangle, which was laid out by Charles Bulfinch,” said Kishore Varanasi, director of urban design for CBT. Bulfinch, considered among the first great American architects, designed the Massachusetts State House. “When we did the master plan, we had no prescriptive for the shape of the buildings,” he continued. “However, it turns out that The Sudbury is simpler and more angular and One Congress is more curved and expressive.”

One Congress Street, on the right.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

One Congress commands its site in a way that must be seen to be appreciated. From almost any point within the Bulfinch Triangle, it follows the great architect Louis Sullivan’s dictum that an office tower be “every inch a proud and soaring thing.” Directly adjacent to the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse, it makes sense of a small urban plaza in front of the courthouse which previously lacked a reason for existence.

One Congress takes the geometric form of the ellipse and runs with it. An 11th-floor amenities space features numerous interior and exterior pavilions that pick up on the shape of the main building. At ground level a restaurant space, not yet built out and occupied, continues the elliptical theme.

Following a signature style that Pelli employed at the World Financial Center in New York in the 1980s, the exterior curtain wall of One Congress has multiple layers. Like Lind’s reference to a well-dressed man, the layers “peel away” and reveal varied façade treatments, in the same way one’s coat of tweed might peel back to reveal the corduroy vest beneath. This is especially true along Congress Street, where several of what the architects call “swoops” lend color and interest by alternating the layers’ metal grids. Nonetheless, there is also something vaguely gaudy and busy about them, like a 1950s car with too much chrome.


The gym area at One Congress.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A dizzying array of collaborators made One Congress possible. In addition to the two architecture firms, there were three development organizations involved — Carr Properties, National Real Estate Advisors, and HYM Investment Group. At a time when many Class A office buildings have substantial vacancies, the owners have managed to get One Congress virtually fully leased — there is only one floor currently available. To heighten the appeal of their tower, the team decided to invest heavily in amenity space — indeed, parts of the interior, particularly the 11th floor, feel more like a five-star hotel than an office building. There is a luxury health club; innumerable places to sit and relax and do work away from one’s desk; coffee bars; and conference rooms that have custom movable walls so they can be altered to accommodate any form of meeting or gathering.

This is a sign of our post-pandemic lives — office buildings are starting to look like hotels and hotels more and more resemble office buildings. How could it be otherwise? We’ve become addicted to the idea of remote work, plying our various trades in the comfort of our own homes. Employers are keen on “attracting” their workers to come into the office, even if it’s just two or three days a week. A building’s best vantage points are reserved not for the executive suite but for common areas where everyone is welcome. Surely this is a good thing — even if it’s far removed from the role the office building played for most of the 20th century.


A meeting area at One Congress.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

So good riddance to the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and the regimented office culture it represented. One Congress is very much a building of its time — visually compelling, chock full of luxury and amenities, and decidedly egalitarian in its layout.

It remains to be seen if South Station Tower, with its more varied mix of uses and much-hyped residential component, can live up to the same standards.

James McCown is an architectural journalist who lives in Newton. Rizzoli New York will publish his The Home Office Reimagined: Places to Think, Reflect, Work, Dream and Wonder” early next year.