Designing a building is a game an architect plays and sometimes wins, sometimes loses. That’s one way of looking at it, anyway. A good example is the new addition to the Berklee College of Music.
Berklee’s 16-story building stands on Massachusetts Avenue just a few steps from the corner of Boylston Street. It goes by the boring name of 160 Mass. Ave., at least until some donor seizes the “naming opportunity,” which is available for $25 million. Although it opened in February, it’s still not quite finished.
160 Mass. is a very good building, and I’ll talk about some of its virtues. But what’s especially fascinating about it is the way the design game was played. 160 Mass. offers a kind of lesson in the process of designing a building.
The architect is William Rawn Associates, a Boston firm best known locally for the new Cambridge Public Library, Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, and Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in the Berkshires. Berklee’s president, Roger Brown, worked with Bill Rawn in what both of them say was a close collaboration.
You can think of 160 Mass. as a chess problem. Rawn and his team started with a number of different pieces, and they had to figure out some way to arrange them on the board — meaning the site — so that they’d fit together and not get in one another’s way.
The pieces for this game were many and big. First, there would be a dorm for 370 students. Second, an area of 14,000 square feet (that’s almost a third of a football field) of music labs and studios. Third, a cafeteria with 400 seats. Fourth, a stretch of retail space along the Mass. Ave. sidewalk. Plus lots of scattered rehearsal and social spaces and a health club.
The site on which this pile of diverse uses had to be fitted somehow was a small, weirdly shaped piece of real estate, tightly boxed in by older buildings.
No game, of course, is fun without challenges. To make things more difficult, it was decided early on that the Mass. Ave. sidewalk in front of the building should be widened. Students call their stretch of sidewalk the “Berklee Beach” — it gets a lot of afternoon sun — and they like to hang out there. But widening their “beach” made a small site even smaller.
Worse still, it was believed at first that 160 Mass. could be no higher than maybe eight or 10 stories, because of fears that the city or the neighbors would veto anything taller.
Cramming all the parts of the building behind that wide sidewalk and under that height limit would produce a fat, and probably ugly, piece of architecture. The design game appeared to be a stalemate.
Not quite. Rawn and Brown started moving the pieces. They took the risk of asking permission for a taller structure and found that, in fact, nobody really objected. So they put the dorms in a slim 16-story tower. The music labs, which don’t need windows, ended up on two basement levels where they could be acoustically isolated from traffic noise (a firm that specializes in music technology, called WSDG, planned and designed these interiors).
At some point the design clicked shut like a Rubik’s Cube. Suddenly, all the pieces were in the right place. The skill with which the game was played speaks well for the value of a good architect (and a good client). It’s easy to imagine how, in other hands, a shapeless urban pileup could have been the result.
The building has many other virtues. It confronts the city with a glass wall three stories high, a huge window that blazes with light and activity at night. Looking through the glass from outside, you see a big double-height interior space known as the Caf. The Caf is a bit like an urban aquarium because everything happens behind glass, and you can see it all from the street. Several nights a week, there’s some kind of musical performance here, often one cooked up on the spur of the moment by students.
The Caf is called the Caf because it’s the cafeteria but, in another clever move by Rawn and Brown, it doubles as a performance hall. After the eating is done, the tables get shoved aside, and you may notice for the first time that certain parts of the cafeteria are shaped as a stage and a balcony.
Rawn says that the key to the Caf was to design it as an auditorium that can also be a cafeteria, not as a cafeteria that can double as a not-very-good auditorium. At Berklee, music comes before food. As of now, at least — you can’t always trust the security gurus — the Caf is open to the general public.
I’m mixing metaphors, but you can also think of the Caf’s glass wall as a billboard to the city. Every work of architecture broadcasts a message about the values of the people who created it. The message of 160 Mass. is about the excitement, the joy, the youthful vitality, and the vivid life of art in the city.
Finally, of course, 160 Mass. is a home. It’s a place for human habitation that’s safe and sanitary. In today’s Boston, as revealed by a recent Globe series, off-campus housing for college students is too often filthy, overcrowded, and dangerous. Students come to Boston in such numbers that they flood the housing market, driving up the cost of rentals. But Berklee can now house all incoming freshmen and all women on campus. Most of the rooms are doubles, each with a large window that Rawn hopes will give the space the feeling of a loft.
Seen from outside, the dorm tower is a modest gray presence that, unlike the Caf, seems to avoid being noticed. For groupies of Boston urban design, it’s worth noting that the tower fits the concept of the High Spine. This is the principle, now more than a half-century old, that high-rise growth should be limited to a strip running from downtown through the area between the Back Bay and the South End. The Spine gives Boston a shape and order, and allows for density without invading historic neighborhoods.
My only problem with 160 Mass., through no fault of the college, is that it’s yet another institutional presence in one of the last Boston neighborhoods you can call funky. There are attempts at giving it some of that kind of screwy charm, for instance in the rhythmic way the great glass wall folds back and forth like origami, or the way the aluminum window frames (if you look hard) are tinted pink. At night, it looks great, but in daylight it’s a little timid. I’d rather have seen the inventiveness of another recent student dorm, the marvelous “Tree House” at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Maybe Berklee’s students will find a way to make 160 Mass. feel a little crazier. A lot of the success of the building as streetscape is going to depend on who leases the retail frontage. Today, that’s a dead wall along the sidewalk.
A public billboard, a glass performance palace, a student dwelling, a cutting-edge music lab — 160 Mass. Ave. packs a lot into its tough urban site. Gripes aside, it’s the result of a game that’s been well played and won.
Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at email@example.com.