Boston may finally be getting a dose of good architecture. It’s coming from an unlikely source: a luxury residential developer. And it’s being designed by an unlikely architecture team: one of Boston’s best boutique firms, known among design aficionados everywhere but here.
If this team succeeds in building a distinctive 19-story apartment building on a little infill parcel between Bay Village and Park Square — and in convincing that good design is worth paying for — there’s hope for the city yet.
For years, “Boston architecture” was almost an oxymoron. Broadly speaking, Boston’s developing skyline has been an unsettling display of profound mediocrity. And nowhere was the city’s architecture more mediocre than in the Seaport. The area that should have showcased what a modern urban waterfront neighborhood could be, instead looks like Anywhere, USA — oblivious to its harborside surroundings, unremarkable in every possible way. Those responsible for the design and planning of that neighborhood and its collection of nondescript squat buildings — with rare exceptions such as the Moakley Courthouse and the ICA — should be publicly flogged in the Common.
Because the city has lacked any interest in good architecture, Boston’s finest designers have had to go elsewhere to get work. Tamara Roy, a principal at Stantec and former president of Boston Society of Architects (BSA), acknowledged that Boston developers typically excluded the region’s design-focused firms, saying that they got “traction working outside of Boston before they could get decent commissions here.”
That’s got to change, says Peter Spellios, a principal at the newly formed development team Transom. Spellios, who was formerly with Related Beal, lead the charge for his firm’s inaugural project to feature good architecture as its strongest feature. (Disclosure: Related Beal is a client of the law firm where I work.) He isn’t shy about proclaiming the role design plays in any city: “The building is public realm for everybody but the few who get to live in it,” said Spellios. “Public art, public sculpture — that just hasn’t been in our vernacular, and that’s just inexcusable.”
And Spellios has a theory: Bostonians actually will pay more for good architecture. He saw this while working on the Clarendon project on Stuart Street on the edge of the Back Bay. According to Spellios, when that project hit the market, during the economic downturn, it sold faster than other peer projects. This he attributed to its good design.
To test his premise, Spellios has hired Höweler + Yoon Architecture to design a 19-story apartment building with ground floor retail on a small infill parcel between Bay Village and Park Square.
Prior to opening the Boston based firm with his wife, Meejin Yoon, architect Eric Höweler worked in New York, where he participated on key projects including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the ICC Tower in Hong Kong. But since arriving here, his firm has been passed over for large local projects, even though Höweler + Yoon’s work has thrived in Dubai, Munich, China, and Washington, D.C. Now, some of their smaller works have garnered attention. MIT’s Collier Memorial was featured on the cover of Architecture Magazine. The amphitheater plaza area outside the Millennium Tower is an exciting new public space, as is the interior/stairway in BSA’s Congress Street location.
Höweler doesn’t mince words when describing Boston’s recent development boomlet, calling its architecture “formulaic faux contemporary pastiche.”
It was precisely that kind of attitude that drew Spellios to Höweler + Yoon — as well as their grasp of the public realm and attention to design.
“We were trying to find an architect,” he said. “Yes, an architect, but a designer.”
In describing the design of Transom’s building, Höweler says his team focused on the distinctiveness of Boston’s various neighborhoods and the fact that the parcel sits at the intersection of three.
“How do you navigate a city, make a city memorable, make a city distinctive?” he asked. “The site is between neighborhoods… it has a responsibility to all three neighborhoods.”
As a result the building had no back but rather two fronts — one responding to the scale and texture of the row of large scale buildings that comprise the so called “high spine,” the other responding to the Bay Village neighborhood. As a gateway to the neighborhood it announces itself at the street with a plaza of stonework followed by a canopy of trees. The materials include scalloped Indiana limestone which Höweler describes as “fluting on a classical column — tailored, billowing, more sartorial than mineral.”
It’s a far cry from the majority of recent development, particularly what’s been built on the Seaport. Spellios agrees.
“Virtually every glass building in the Seaport District is the same no matter what time and what angle you look at it,” he said. “That’s not what good architecture is supposed to be about.”
Spellios acknowledges that quality architecture comes at a premium. Although the plans are still preliminary, he estimates that the team will have spent six additional months in design, and will pay an additional five percent in construction costs.
But judging from his past experience, he thinks the return will be great, and the end result will be worthy to exist within the public realm.
“You should be expected to build the most beautiful building,” he says.
“Why is Boston so Ugly?” asked Boston Magazine’s Rachel Slade. Now, two years later, after Mayor Walsh’s call for “world-class design,” new projects such as Downtown’s Millennium Tower, the Pierce in the Fenway, and soon Höweler + Yoon’s Stuart Street building will join a few other well-designed buildings yearning to shine through — like light through a transom.
Mike Ross is a former Boston city councilor and attorney. He writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.