The story of the $124 million Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood is a long architectural saga with an unexpected happy ending. In 2006, late Boston Mayor Thomas Menino first raised the idea of bringing Dudley Square, the historic center of the city’s African-American community, back to life by redeveloping the block that included the long-vacant Ferdinand Furniture building. Dutch firm Mecanoo and locally-based Sasaki Associates teamed up to enter a competition for the site two years later. The design—to create a centralized headquarters for Boston Public Schools (BPS)—had to satisfy two demanding communities: Roxbury residents and business owners and the 500 BPS employees being relocated there from sites across the city.
But it couldn’t be too expensive and, at least initially, it couldn’t be iconic: “Dudley Square has been the recipient of a lot of heroic urban design and planning ideas,” says Kairos Shen, director of planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). “Francine [Houben, Hon. FAIA, the creative director of Mecanoo] and Sasaki won with a concept about what the square meant. This wasn’t an iconic autonomous building that you could immediately recognize—even though now you do.”
The 215,000 square-foot, six-story Bolling building sits on a triangular lot bordered by Washington and Warren Streets and the Dudley Square bus station, the busiest in New England. When the architects won the competition in 2008, the 30,000-square foot site included the Ferdinand building, but two 19th-century commercial buildings at the southwest corner of the block were still in private hands. A few months into design development, the designers and the city realized that to achieve the catalytic neighborhood effect they wanted, the site needed to include those buildings, too. The local community supported an eminent domain process, overlooking decades of negative history (land was seized in the 1970s for a never-built Inner Belt highway, for instance). The businesses in those two buildings were relocated, and everything that could be salvaged from the historic façades was absorbed into the Bolling building’s undulating sides.
That acquisition meant that two of the three corners of the new building were preservation projects: One, the landmark 1895 furniture store, a wedding cake with a prominent curved corner, oversized round windows, and two stories of storefront glass; and two, the Curtis Block and Waterman & Sons storefronts, made of sandstone and granite. Mecanoo and Sasaki decided to give the third corner, on Warren, a character of its own, cladding it in granite matching that of the vintage Waterman façade.
The “cement” holding the whole project together, as Houben puts it, are rippling, stepped layers of Endicott Medium Ironspot brick in an iridescent brown, set three ways: running bond, stacked bond, and a rotated soldier course. The curves are not parametric, but riff on the Ferdinand corner, turning an artifact into a design motif. These layers meet the sidewalk at the center of each side, but step back above the historic façades to meet the sky, ending in a mechanical penthouse with LED lighting that has already gone red, white, and blue for the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl win. “Boston is very much a brick town,” says Victor Vizgaitis, AIA, principal at Sasaki. “We wanted to really focus on the idea of craft. Looking at Waterman, it is the articulation of the detail that really makes that special. We thought, let’s not mimic that but pay attention.”
The effect of the brick, both close-up and far away, is hypnotic. I originally spotted the top of the Bolling building on a trip to Marcel Breuer’s nearby 1978 Madison Park High School and was drawn toward it. Handsome and solid, it is clearly the product of thoughtful design without being showy or fancy or corporate—all characteristics the city and the BRA wanted to avoid. The aluminum window frames are held behind the brick and are visible only on the interior—a detail that helps the reading of the exterior and its rounded corners as a continuous fabric, punctuated by rhythmic, not repetitive, rectangles.
It took some doing to convince local masons that they could accomplish the task the architects had set out, including the two-brick-wide columns between many of the windows. The rotated soldier pattern, originally conceived with the blocks at a 45-degree angle, had to be tweaked because the holes down the center of typical bricks would have been left exposed. To avoid the extra expense of custom pieces, the architects changed the angle to 30 degrees. As I stood outside with Vizgaitis by the broad, terraced entrance on the bus station side—where most members of the public will likely enter—he pointed out the light hitting the one interior corner, turning the vertical bricks into glowing fish scales.
Through the clear glass windows above this entrance one can see a row of diminutive wooden tables and chairs on the second floor—a waiting area that leads into a welcome center for children new to the school system. Down the hall is a 3,000-square-foot space being developed as the Roxbury Innovation Center. A counter has been installed around the upstairs balustrade, turning it into birds-eye public seating; this generous space will have free Wi-Fi, as well as community rooms. (There’s also a roof deck on the sixth floor—available for events—with a 270-degree view of Boston.)
At ground level, six retail spaces open onto the streets and into the public lobby, a large space with flexible seating and a dark terrazzo floor centered on a striking, switchback steel staircase. Veneered wood columns and wood slats on the ceiling offer some warmth. Future tenants will include a sit-down restaurant—there were none in Dudley Square—as well as an optometrist (also new to the zip code), a coffee shop, and an organic pizza and salad shop, all locally owned. Former BPS superintendent Carol Johnson vetoed fast food chains as sending the wrong message to kids.
The bulk of the BPS employees will work in private offices on the third through the sixth floors. On the Washington Street side, the architects have half-exposed the fire stair to the street, in hopes of encouraging more employees to walk between floors rather than take the elevator. The offices are not lavish, but they are dominated by daylight and views through the floor-to-ceiling windows banded by aluminum. It’s a Silicon Valley-lite landscape of white desks, colorful breakout spaces, bright blue kitchens, and glass-fronted conference rooms. The outside curves have been cleverly incorporated into the corners and soffits around the core, so one moves smoothly in and around the various lobes of desks and communal spaces.
Interim BPS superintendent John McDonough says he can already see a different in the workplace: “The way that it is structured allows for a very different culture of collaboration and communication. You can just walk around and everybody engages immediately. For those of us who work in public agencies, it is a considerable shift that is very welcome.”
The Bolling building is part of a series of city-led developments in the area. A new police station was completed in 2011, and the site of the old “bunker-like” building cleared for another mixed-use site on Dudley Street. The branch library, designed by Boston City Hall architects Kallman McKinnell & Wood, got a new marquee by Utile last year and is due for an interior renovation.
But more than that, the Bolling is a beautiful piece of architecture. The city and the BRA see it as a model for future office projects, a prototype for government buildings with mixed-use civic amenities—the white workstations have already become the city standard. The scale of the project also makes it an accessible model for smaller cities that need to intervene in commercial neighborhoods with a historic fabric.
As an entrée for Mecanoo into American architecture, the Bolling project is less flashy than other Dutch debuts, but it should appeal to a broader range of clients. (For flashy, consider the firm’s Library of Birmingham in England.) Mecanoo’s next U.S. project, the renovation of and addition to Mies van der Rohe’s 1972 Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. (with Martinez+ Johnson as a partner), has some similar goals: activating ground-floor retail, creating greater vertical transparency and legibility within the library, combining new and old(ish) architectures on the roof. One hopes Mecanoo can negotiate those imperatives with as much grace.
The Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building reads as a true collaboration between architects, contractors, and client—it’s a good sign when everyone involved wants ownership. Touring it felt both bracing and inspiring, proof that letting architects solve urban problems with strategy and taste creates richer, more open cityscapes.