I can’t think when I’ve heard so many people talking about a new work of architecture in Boston. What is it trying to look like, they ask? A cruise ship? A running shoe? Um, maybe a frog?
They’re talking about the world headquarters of the New Balance company, the folks who make athletic gear. We’ll call the building NB for short. Whatever you choose to name it, it’s an outstanding chunk of architecture.
NB is hard to miss. Its upper stories loom above you as you drive the Mass. Pike in Brighton, just inbound of the WGBH electronic billboard.
The architect, David Manfredi, of the firm Elkus Manfredi, has his own fantasy. He likes to imagine, as he drives by, that he’s racing the building—and winning, I guess, since NB doesn’t actually move. With its sleek shape and curving walls, NB projects an appropriate image for a maker of running shoes. Shoe or ship or sealing-wax, NB possesses one undeniable quality. It’s streamlined. It’s about speed.
NB is more than just a good single building. It’s social architecture, in the sense that it’s the first of what will be a family of new buildings, all being done by the same owner and the same architect.
The neighborhood is being marketed as Boston Landing. It will eventually encompass, besides NB, a hotel, a couple of residential towers, additional office buildings, an ice rink where the Bruins will practice, a sports complex with a running track, a parking garage, shops at ground level, and a system of outdoor parks. Much of this is already in construction.
A new commuter rail station, also called Boston Landing, is scheduled to open in a year or so. (Side note: Before the Mass. Pike was built, there were three stations on this line in Brighton and Allston. Residents at that time were told they wouldn’t need trains because now they’d have the Pike, and the stations were abandoned. This time around, local citizens insisted on a station, which is being built and paid for by New Balance.)
Do Americans know how to make cities? Sometimes you wonder when you see another group of anonymous boxy towers surrounded by too much highway. But lessons have been learned in recent years. Obvious at Boston Landing is the influence of the New Urbanism movement, which touts the virtues of older cities, though none of that movement’s gurus were involved.
As urban design, Boston Landing gets a lot of things right. For instance:
■ It’s part of the larger city. It’s not an attempt at a private nirvana, as are so many office parks and residential enclaves. Jim Davis, the owner of New Balance, emphasizes that he didn’t want anything you could call a “campus,” a green escape from the busy world. Instead, old streets are being reopened to connect with the Brighton surroundings.
■ Lots of different things happen close together. People will be able to live, work, and play in the same neighborhood. That kind of diversity of uses is the essence of city life. I’d like to see much more housing, but at least there’s some.
■ There’s diversity, too, in the size and height of buildings and in their colors and materials. All have been designed by architect Manfredi, whose firm is the largest in town. He’s created an apparent diversity, but I’d rather have seen some of the work shared with talented younger architects, of whom Boston has a plethora.
■ There’s an appreciation of streets. Streets are more than traffic sewers, they’re the heart of public life. Guest Street, which is now little more than a service alley that runs the length of the site, is conceived to become a village Main Street over time. It’s rumored, too, that New Balance may seek to buy up more of the adjacent properties.
■ Finally, there’s the commuter line, an essential ingredient.
Back to the architecture.
Manfredi, the architect, was a leading figure in the Boston 2024 Olympic bid. Elkus Manfredi projects range from Liberty Wharf and MIT’s Broad Institute to Las Vegas City Hall and a renovation of the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field.
You can think of NB’s streamlined shape as a big commercial logo rendered in architecture. It’s pleasingly nutty. So are many of the landmarks we treasure. Think of the hubcaps that adorn the façade of the Chrysler Building, in New York.
The curvy shape, like so many good ideas, began as an accident. The building was originally meant to include a rooftop jogging track. The curves reflected its shape. By the time that was abandoned, the curves had become loved and were left in the design. The result is that, unlike much of the recent development in, say, the Seaport District, NB doesn’t look like the cheap box the real building came in. It has its own personality. You can recognize and remember it, you find yourself making up names for it.
Indoors, NB is airy, open, and generous. Spaces tend to sweep into one another without being interrupted by a lot of walls. Ceilings are high, ductwork is concealed beneath the floors, views to the outside world are plentiful.
One clue to the development’s level of ambition is the racing track in the future sports complex. A little shyly, New Balance officials admit that they hope it will prove to be the fastest in the world. Slopes and curves will be adjustable. They’ll be the result of the company’s ongoing research into the mechanics with which a foot meets a floor. New Balance, incidentally, claims to be the only major maker of athletic shoes that still does its manufacturing, or most of it, in the United States.
NB reminds me of the urbanism of long ago, say in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In those days it was common for a single plutocrat to create a building, or a set of buildings, for the use of his own company, as is true of the New Balance headquarters. Today’s commercial architecture is often owned by faceless investment groups that may be headquartered in some other part of the nation or the world. What’s lost is the sense that the building is the clothes of an individual, in which he or she takes personal pride.
For Jim Davis, as for some of those old-time builders, Boston Landing is surely perceived as a legacy. Davis has owned New Balance since he acquired it for a modest investment in 1972, when it had just six employees. He notes with pride that his father came to the United States at 16, as an immigrant from Greece.
Davis, 72, doesn’t cite the comparison, but he was listed this year at No. 124 on the Forbes Magazine list of the richest Americans, with an estimated fortune of $4.3 billion. With such deep pockets, he’s presumably not in the game for a quick profit. That, too, makes better architecture possible.
I ask Davis if he now considers himself a developer — he’s also currently doing a Shingle Style hotel on the Gloucester waterfront — but he says, “No.” So what does he call himself then? “A shoemaker.”
Before I leave, he informs me with a smile that I need new shoes.
Correction: An earlier version included a reference to a swimming pool at Boston Landing, which is no longer part of the plans.