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MassArt’s dorm a bold statement in the skyline

The new MassArt Residence Hall rises 20 stories above Huntington Avenue. The panels get lighter in color and glossier as they get closer to the top of the building, a trick from the Art Deco period of the 1920s.
The new MassArt Residence Hall rises 20 stories above Huntington Avenue. The panels get lighter in color and glossier as they get closer to the top of the building, a trick from the Art Deco period of the 1920s.(Peter Vanderwarker)

The new dorm tower at Massachusetts College of Art and Design is the most interesting Boston high-rise in years.

Even though it isn’t finished, it’s already an architectural landmark, rising like a multicolored flag above Huntington Avenue.

There’s a youthfulness about this building, a feeling of play, of experiment. Those are qualities an art school ought to have.

The facade of the MassArt Residence Hall was partially inspired by a Gustav Klimt painting.
The facade of the MassArt Residence Hall was partially inspired by a Gustav Klimt painting.(Peter Vanderwarker)

College buildings need donors to give them names. For the time being, this one is known as the MassArt Residence Hall. We’ll just call it the Hall. It’s 20 stories tall and will be home to 493 students. The architect is the Boston firm of ADD Inc, with partner B.K. Boley as lead designer.

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The Hall’s interiors aren’t quite done. What’s visible now is the exterior, especially the remarkable cladding with which it’s covered. Maybe judging a building by its skin is like judging a book by its cover. But in this case it makes sense. The Hall is an urban semaphore, a coded message in the sky that announces the presence of MassArt to the larger city.

The skin is unlike that of any building I’ve seen before. It’s a richly varied, boldly colored pattern of metal panels and glass windows. There are 5,500 of the panels and they come in five colors. A warm ocher predominates, with splashes of green. Your first mistaken impression is likely to be that the panels are varnished wood. They create a remarkable sense of warmth and craftsmanship.

When you look up, you notice another subtlety. The panels grow lighter in color and also glossier as they get closer to the top of the building. That’s an architectural trick from the Art Deco period of the 1920s. It’s supposed to make a building look taller, as if the top were fading into the mist. The 1927 Batterymarch Building in downtown Boston is a well-known example, using 30 shades of brick to create its fade-out. It’s nice to see a contemporary architect reworking an old motif like that in a fresh way.

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The Hall’s facade is sufficiently memorable that you can’t help wondering where it came from. Ideas in any art often arrive from oddball sources. Architect Boley cites two of those for the Hall. One is a box of pastel chalks, and the other is a 1909 painting, “The Tree of Life,” by famed Viennese artist Gustav Klimt.

Boley says that when the architects first started on the job, they spent time wandering around the school’s art studios. They were struck by the beauty of the boxes of color at student desks — pastels, paints, pencils. Then they discovered that in the early 20th century, a professor named Albert Munsell, who taught at what now is MassArt, developed a theory called the Munsell Color Order System, which became known worldwide and is still in use today.

The architects experimented with a facade that would have looked more like a stack of pastel chalks. They abandoned that idea, but you can still see its influence in the patchwork color of the Hall as built.

And the Klimt? “The students kept saying that the building, if it was going to be a high-rise, should look like a painting on the skyline,” says Boley. “Using the Klimt was my idea. A tree is a symbol in many cultures of health, growth, and renewal.” He says he showed a reproduction of the Klimt painting to students, faculty, and Mayor Thomas Menino, and they bought the idea of a tree as a metaphor for the architecture.

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The Klimt influenced the woody color of the facade. The concept of a tree is also present in the way the Hall grows lighter as it rises, like a plant reaching from the earth toward the sun.

You don’t have to believe everything an architect says about sources. And no one is going to spot the pastels or the tree motif by merely looking at the Hall. But at some level, both concepts are encoded in the facades. They enrich the architecture and, in a kind of secret way, connect the building to its history and to its purpose as a home for art.

I’m not going to say much about the interior, but it promises to be as thoughtful and inventive as the facades. MassArt wants to get more students living on campus instead of commuting. The goal is both to relieve pressure on the local housing market and to create, in the dorm, a 24/7 social world where students can meet and learn from one another.

A few quick notes:

-- The ground floor, besides a huge lobby that doubles as a gallery, will contain a cafe that’s been largely designed by Mass­Art students. Students collaborated on many other features of the Hall.

-- The second floor will be a health clinic. Both the cafe and the clinic will serve not only MassArt but also two of its neighbor schools, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and Wentworth Institute of Technology. Such sharing of facilities and mixing of students from different fields is becoming common among the many schools in this part of Boston.

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-- The third floor is known as the Pajama Floor. There, I’m told, students will be able to do whatever they do in their pajamas. “MassArt students go everywhere in their pajamas,” explains one administrator. The floor includes a generous hang-out space, a laundry, a fitness room, a kitchen, and a group study space.

-- The remaining 17 floors are filled with bedrooms, mostly doubles and quads, all intended for frosh and sophomores. They’re planned to maximize both privacy and social life. Each room or suite has its own private bathroom but no living room. One large room on each floor, next to the elevators where you can’t miss it, serves as a common social and work space. (Initially, several floors are being rented out to Mass. Pharmacy.)

-- Students in each room will own the rights to a section of the corridor wall just outside their door, on which they’ll be able to paint anything they want.

-- The architecture doesn’t shout at you about sustainability, but in subtle ways the awareness of it is ever-present. One indication: When you step out of the elevator, you’ll be confronted with a signal that informs you whether it’s a good day or a bad one, from an energy point of view, for you to open the window in your bedroom.

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-- It’s an irony that MassArt has long been known for occupying what is arguably the least artistic building ever built in Boston, a grim, forbidding high-rise known to students as the Black Tower. So the new Hall had to be more than a dorm. Silhouetted against the sky, it signals the presence not only of MassArt but of a whole stretch of cultural activities on and near Huntington, the street Mayor Menino calls “the Avenue of the Arts.” With the Hall, Huntington is beginning to look as if it deserves that title.


Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.