The land of boxy buildings that is Boston’s burgeoning Seaport District is about to get some long-desired curves.
Skanska USA broke ground Thursday on a 17-story building unlike any of its neighbors — a sleek oval-shaped tower set at a diagonal to the street, designed to pop out from the surrounding glass and brick rectangles much criticized for their sameness.
“It looks different. It feels different. It is different,” said Shawn Hurley, an executive vice president for Skanska USA in Boston.
That difference, Hurley said, is in part a response to a call by Mayor Martin J. Walsh for developers to come up with new and different looks for their buildings. It’s also a business move, a selling point for 121 Seaport Blvd. in a neighborhood where a lot of new office space is coming onto the market.
The tower is curved on its sides, with an unusual flat face above its angled entrance, and is set on a more traditional block-shaped base that will have stores and other retail. The top of the base flares out from the tower above it and will host an elevated outdoor deck and landscaping.
The curved shape of the tower will create work spaces that are better suited for collaboration because there will no corner offices, said David Nagahiro, principal at CBT Architects in Boston, which designed the building. That could help attract a wider range of tenants. It’s also set up to maximize views of Boston Harbor, allow natural light deeper into the interior, and minimize shadows on a new park below.
It’s also a response to the site itself. A tunnel for the Silver Line runs under a corner of the property, limiting how much Skanska could build over it; meanwhile, the Seaport neighborhood has a height limit of 250 feet because of flight paths for Logan Airport.
“We had some site constraints,” Nagahiro said. “And we were trying to do something provocative.”
The creative solution was good news to Walsh, whose administration has pushed for more innovative architecture in the buildings popping up across town. At the groundbreaking Thursday, Walsh said he hoped 121 Seaport would prompt more builders to try new approaches in the Seaport and elsewhere.
“We want to encourage more builders to invest in creative design,” Walsh said. “We don’t just want to grow bigger. We want to grow better.”
Still, some architectural critics say the Seaport still looks more like an outpost of the suburbs or the Sun Belt than an extension of downtown Boston. And there’s only so much one building can do to change that, said George Thrush, an architecture professor at Northeastern University.
The problem, Thrush said, goes back to the original Seaport development plan, which called for wide streets and big lots suitable mainly for large buildings — albeit only up to 250 feet tall. Once that took hold, he said, the look and feel of the Seaport were almost preordained.
“It’s a completely alien pattern for Boston,” Thrush said. “But the pattern of the streets and the size of the streets defines the character of the place.”
Then there’s the economics of office construction, which often force architects to work from a standard template.
First, developers and their lenders understandably want to maximize the amount of leasable space, said Tim Love, founder of Utile, an architecture and planning firm in Boston. Tenants, meanwhile, usually have very specific requirements, often shaped by what they see elsewhere on the market. Then throw in height restrictions such as those in the Seaport, and architects are fairly boxed in before they even begin.
“The prototype contemporary office building is a fairly fixed product,” Love said. “The critique that the Seaport is homogenous is really driven by development economics.”
Still, in a hot market like Boston, Love said, there can be value in sticking out, even if just a bit.
George Tremblay agrees. A principal at the Boston architecture firm Arrowstreet, Tremblay noted that several hot sections in the city have uniform architecture, with an occasional building that stands out.
“Back Bay is very consistent. Fort Point is very consistent,” Tremblay said. “But every now and then you have something that sticks out, which proves the rule. That’s good.”
How good sticking out will be for Skanska remains to be seen. 121 Seaport is unusual by another measure: Skanska is building it “on spec,” or without having a tenant before beginning construction, and the construction giant is financing the $281 million project itself.
It’s also launching the project as prices for top-end space in the Seaport are not rising as fast as just a year ago; rents average $59 per square foot for Class A space, and premium offices go for much more.
Meanwhile, the Seaport is expected to have an additional 1 million square feet of new construction coming onto the market in just the next year, and even more soon after that.
Hurley wouldn’t say what rents Skanska USA is asking for 121 Seaport. But he said he was confident the distinctive building won’t have trouble filling up long before its scheduled opening in January 2018.
“I think we have a higher probability of leasing this building sooner rather than later,” he said. “We have a number of ongoing conversations.”
If those conversations bear fruit, Tremblay said, 121 Seaport may not be the last different-looking building to go up in the city’s hot new office market.
“Economics are driving this,” he said. “They’re trying to be distinctive. And when there’s a lot of office space going up in this city, being distinctive is good.”
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