Maya Lin In Good Company


Massing diagram of Maya Lin’s building site.
Courtesy MITIM

Neighboring Maki, Gehry, Aalto, Pei, and Holl, New York artist and architect Maya Lin will be the latest in a long line of world-class designers to build on MIT turf in Cambridge, MA. The new buildings won’t house further education offices or studios, however, but have been leased from the institution to create a new campus for biomedical research giant Novartis.

The east campus, which sits directly opposite Novartis’ existing Cambridge headquarters, is currently awaiting planning permission from the Cambridge city council. Though well received at a planning presentation earlier this year, it is not yet clear whether the proposal will get a green light, since the design requires two zoning laws to be changed: one to permit an increase in maximum height from 120 feet to 140 feet, and another to increase the gross floor area from 415,250 square feet to 528,500 square feet. “We are optimistic to complete the process at the end of 2011,” said Jeff Lockwood, Executive Director of Communications at Novartis. The proposed campus, which includes two new research and lab buildings and the renovation of MIT’s N24 block, will wrap around the corner plot just north of MIT and dip from 140 ft at the north end to 80 ft on the southern edge.

The site of Novartis’ new biomedical campus in Cambridge.

“Lin will design the first building and really set the overall look and feel of the rest of the site,” said Lockwood. A second architect, yet to be appointed, will design the second building, “so it won’t be one hand,” Lin said in a recent presentation. Though not the company’s first such foray into excellent design—its recently completed Basel site rivals MIT’s own campus with a who’s who list of famous architects—the choice of Lin, who gained fame in 1981 for her design of the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. while still a graduate at Yale, is an enlightened decision by Novartis. Her elegant and considered work, focusing on ecological design and sculpture sets her apart from many architects and designers currently peppering the surrounding MIT campus. Thomas Sieniewicz of Chan Krieger NBBJ’s Harvard Square office, who is collaborating with Lin, spoke of her as “incredibly sensitive to site and place.”

As just one of many leases by MIT’s extensive real estate office, MIT Investment Management Company (MITIM), it also positions the project in a favorable light with the city council. Although nothing has been confirmed about the planned green courtyard space, its community-driven approach speaks directly to the Cambridge city council, which has recently taken umbrage with MIT’s plan to revitalize Kendall Square. Quoted in the Tech, MIT’s newspaper, councilmember Kenneth Reeves said: “We’re being developed by entities whose bottom line is profit, not people or ease of access.”

However, Steve Marsh, MITIM’s managing director believes that “the big motivation behind this is growing the innovation culture in Cambridge.” Indeed, this sentiment is reflected in the number of research-based companies, which have made the city their home and where Novartis intends to encourage an “innovation ecosystem.” Good design is a good start.

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