Architect Francine Houben envisions building as a symbol
Phil Nijhuis for The Boston Globe
DELFT, the Netherlands — Far away from Roxbury, in the land of tulips and windmills, is a small replica of the new Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Dudley Square.
It is an architectural scale model, and it is sitting in the board room of architect Francine Houben’s firm Mecanoo. Houben — considered one of the world’s most influential architects — designed the $125 million Roxbury building, in collaboration with Watertown-based Sasaki Associates. It opens this month and will be the new headquarters for Boston’s public schools.
Municipal buildings are notoriously unpleasant and user-unfriendly — mazes of confusing corridors, lookalike cubicles, dim light, and salvaged furniture. But this one is different.
building is meant to be a symbol, the centerpiece of a revitalized, no- longer-neglected Dudley Square that will “unlock its potential,” in the words of the late Thomas M. Menino, who as mayor championed the project.
It incorporates the facades of three buildings more than a century old, including the iconic Ferdinand furniture building, which has been vacant for 40 years. It is infused with light, thanks to a multitude of windows, glass walls, and open work stations. There are “alternative” desk spaces for workers who want a change of scenery, and a roof garden with a panoramic view of Boston’s skyline. And the furnishings for the 500-plus employees who will work there are a modernist snob’s dream — ergonomic Herman Miller chairs, sleek Knoll work stations, fancy European-style kitchens with blue refrigerators, presumably to keep bag lunches cold.
Much of the building, including the roof garden, has nothing to do with schools at all. There are plans for street-level restaurants and shops, community events, even an incubator for startups.
Architect Victor Vizgaitis, a principal at Sasaki, said the design is a statement about “government catching up to where the private sector has been.”
Houben said the building reflects the “Dutch touch.” But both agree it is a radical building for Boston, especially given its location in a neighborhood that came to be known for violence and disinvestment.
This is one of the reasons why Houben was drawn to the project, in addition to the fact that she loves Boston (she was a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1997) and that it gives her firm a toehold in the United States. For years, she worked on housing projects in urban renewal areas of the Netherlands.
“I worked in these kind of neighborhoods to improve them,” said Houben, the founding partner and creative director of the 120-person global firm located in Delft, a quaint 13th-century city famous for Vermeer and Delft Blue pottery. “They have a certain idea, I have a pencil, and I can realize dreams.”
She dreams big. Her projects include the Library of Birmingham in England, the largest library in Europe, a transparent glass building wrapped in a filigree of interlacing rings; the Library of the Technical University of Delft, constructed of glass and enveloped in grass; and the futuristic Wei-Wu-Ying Center for the Arts in Taiwan, with nearly 6,000 seats plus an open-air theater. She is currently working on a 17.6-kilometer cycling route in China that will link the city of Jiaozuo to the mountains.
“Francine may be one of the most important architects working in the world right now,” said Kairos Shen, chief planner for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, who was trained as an architect at MIT.
In February, Houben was named 2014 Woman Architect of the Year by the Architects’ Journal, a United Kingdom-based architecture magazine. That same month, Mecanoo won the competition to revamp the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, “to give it a rebirth,” she said. “A totally new vision.” The original was designed by Mies van der Rohe.
“I specialize in things I’ve never done before,” said Houben, 59. Her buildings bear little resemblance to one another except for a sense of drama, and the occasional unexpected use of an intense hue she calls “Mecanoo Blue.” (Thus, the Mecanoo Blue refrigerators in the Bolling building, which is named for the former city councilor from Roxbury who died in 2012.) Her work also draws inspiration from nature. This was not easy to accomplish in the Dudley Square project, where nature is in short supply. So she looked instead to the building’s bricks.
“I come from a brick country,” said Houben, whose office, a former hospital, is located on a canal in Delft’s historic city center, where streets are paved with all manner of brickwork, much of it irregular and textured. “The rivers bring clay, and that’s our material. There’s not a lot of wood here.”
Boston, she added, is “very much about bricks,” and so was the original Ferdinand building, though little of the structure remained except its facade.
Houben said she felt strongly that the city should purchase and restore not only the Ferdinand building, but the Curtis and Waterman buildings next to it so that there would be no more holes in the ground between structures, and dismal angles, but rather a triangle of elegant facades connected by new construction. She felt the people waiting at the Dudley bus station across the street should be looking at something uplifting, not depressing. The restored facades are connected by dynamic, undulating waves of textured bricks that are staggered and turned at different angles, so that it looks — well, Dutch. The pattern of the new brick entryway in front of the old Ferdinand building also bears an uncanny resemblance to the brick on Oude Delft street, where Mecanoo is located.
Houben also looked to the people of Dudley Square for inspiration.
“We did interviews with people on the street, and they were very optimistic about the neighborhood,” she said. “They had very good memories of the Ferdinand building,” home at one time to the largest furniture retailer in New England.
To many people, it remains the enduring symbol of the glory days of Dudley Square, once known as Boston’s “other downtown.” The elevated Orange Line rolled down Washington Street, and the square bustled with shops, restaurants, and social halls.
Houben said the neighborhood people she spoke to missed the vitality of Dudley Square.
“I asked them about their dreams also, and they wanted better places to eat, a place where they could go for music,” she said. “I thought the building should be a little bit jazzy.”
With all her experience in troubled neighborhoods, Houben said Dudley Square was one of the saddest sites she had ever seen. And yet the potential seemed so great.
“I went to the top of the Ferdinand building and saw how nearby the city center was,” she said. “Dudley Square and Roxbury are the gravity point of Boston.”
She thought about the people who would be using the building — the workers, the teachers, the parents, the children — and that they deserved something much better.
“In my dream, this should be more like a village,” she said. “I call it Ferdinand Village. It should be welcoming from all sides. People on the street can see the craftsmanship in the bricks. Parents with children will come in and feel welcome; my dream is to have free computers here for children who don’t have them at home. It will be a catalyst for the neighborhood. There can be educational events; the Roxbury Film Festival can have screenings here.”
It is now one of her favorite buildings, she said: “It is a pity that Thomas Menino cannot see it finished.”
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