CAMBRIDGE — Driving or walking on Massachusetts Avenue, at the edge of the MIT campus, you notice a screen that hangs in the air above the sidewalk. Its rough surface makes it look like a burly patchwork quilt. The building behind it seems to be pulling it tight against the weather.
It’s only when you get close that you realize that you’re looking at a screen made of thousands of interlocking blocks of granite pierced with a pattern of holes.
What to make of this? Hang a mass of heavy granite in midair? Totally crazy, of course.
I wish all our recent architecture were equally crazy. Because this is the most interesting new building in town.
It’s a cluster of research labs, offices, shops, and social spaces for the Swiss-based pharmaceutical giant Novartis. It stands at 181 Massachusetts Ave., across the street from an older Novartis complex.
Number 181 would be worth checking out if only for its principal designer. Maya Lin authored the subtle but overwhelmingly powerful Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., while she was still an undergraduate at Yale. In recent years she’s been a voice for the environment. Last month at the White House, Lin, now 57, received the highest US civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
At 181, Lin and her colleagues take a fresh look at every issue. Take the way it’s laid out on the site. This is a big building — 850,000 square feet — and it could have been a conventional oversized box. Instead it’s been broken into smaller pieces that link up to shape a garden courtyard, a place that’s meant to remind you of a village green or college quad.
This is an ambitious building, too. How, the designers ask, can we create a more productive lab space? What’s the best way to fit into adjoining neighborhoods? How can we add a new chapter to the retail frontage along Massachusetts Avenue? Or design glass walls that won’t be boring to look at from outside? A host of issues. All of them are addressed by the architecture, often brilliantly.
Remarkable buildings need remarkable clients. Mark Fishman headed the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research from 2002 to 2015. Number 181 is its new home, and it’s Fishman’s baby. After he and Lin had agreed on the master plan, they decided the architecture should be, like scientific research, a work of collaboration. Lin kept the Mass. Ave. frontage with the granite screen, the large interior spaces, and a small tower of labs. Toshiko Mori, a former chairwoman of the architecture department at Harvard, took the other lab wing. The courtyard is the work of landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.
You can’t visit the lab floors — hey, you might be stealing secrets — and that’s too bad, because they occupy the bulk of the space of 181, and they’re wonderful. They’re mostly the work of Mori, who also designed much of their furnishings. The labs are flooded with daylight from window walls that seem to be everywhere. You can usually see right through a lab space out to the city beyond. In today’s electronic world, biological research labs no longer need to be cluttered with ductwork or piping that block vision. Fishman says half of all research scientists are introverts. He hopes that the openness of 181 will help them get to know one another and collaborate on new ideas.
Besides the labs, the dominant interior space is a double-height atrium. Lin is a fan of the great 20th-century Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Without imitating Aalto, she captures his warmth and love of craftsmanship here. Walls are paneled in a wood called gray elm that, despite its name, is a pale gold color. I’m not sure anyone has figured out what to do with this space, which at least for now is populated by potted trees, but it’s marvelous.
When you reinvent architecture you take chances. One of the chancier features of 181 is, no surprise, the granite screen. It functions well enough as a sunshade. It works as urban design, too, endowing this once forgettable stretch of Mass. Ave. with a shape and presence it didn’t have. And it can become unexpected urban art, at moments when you look across the street on a sunny day and see 181 reflected back at you from the glass façade of the older Novartis building.
The patterns of openings in the granite were inspired, says Lin, by microscopic images of coral and bone. The screen becomes a coded message about the joining, in biological research, of nature and science.
One detail is bothersome. The granite is a rectangular grid except in places where it collides with other parts of the building that slice it at an angle. The result is a lot of awkwardly truncated blocks. Crazy doesn’t feel like the right word here. Careless would be closer.
Van Valkenburgh is a world-class landscape architect, but his courtyard park here, open to the public in daylight hours, isn’t his best. Viewed from the sidewalk, it feels a bit remote, a bit defensive. There are too many visible barricades, too many abrupt changes of level.
There are supposed to be retail shops at 181 to maintain the city life of the sidewalk. The building opened back in June, but no retail has yet appeared. Novartis says there will be a yoga studio (Health Yoga Life), the Greek restaurant Saloniki Cambridge (a second location for Jody Adams, Eric Papachristos, and Jonathan Mendez’s popular Fenway eatery), and a third vendor yet to be identified.
As with any new building, many people were involved. CannonDesign of Boston and Bialosky Architects of New York were other key members of the architectural team. The cost of the project was, according to Novartis, “in excess of $500 million.”
Number 181 is a deeply thought-out work of architecture. It’s reminiscent of buildings of earlier eras in the way it seems to leave no detail unconsidered. Baker House, an MIT dorm by the aforementioned Aalto that opened in 1949, possesses that kind of universality. I tend to like a work of art — a building, a painting, a performance — in which things aren’t totally resolved, in which you feel the work is still in process of becoming, rather than finished and perfect. Perfect can be boring. Number 181 certainly isn’t flawless, but it has the energy of exploration.
Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.