Dudley Square in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood has always been a crossroads in the city, first traversed by elevated rail lines and now home to the city’s busiest bus depot. It’s fitting then that a new municipal office building designed by Netherlands-based Mecanoo Architecten—the firm’s first U.S. project—and Watertown, Massachusetts-based Sasaki Associates will create a new civic heart for the historically underserved community.
Construction on the $115 million complex began in 2012. Sasaki principal Victor Vizgaitis said that before breaking ground there were several false starts and an abandoned design competition that shortlisted ten international firms, Sasaki and Mecanoo among them. In 2011, the project reemerged with a new selection process that led to a stepped back massing plan, blending the mixed-use building with its midrise neighborhood. “Dudley Square is one of the geographic hearts of Boston, but it’s not as dense as the rest of the city,” said Vizgaitis. At more than 215,000 square feet, “the mass of space required could have easily dominated the area. We did our best to break down the scale of the building.”
With a topping out ceremony taking place on June 24, construction is now about a third complete, and is expected to be complete in late 2014 or early 2015 when 500 Boston Public School employees will move in.
Sited on an irregular triangular block adjacent to the bus depot, Dudley Square is anchored by three visually differentiated corners, one formed by the facade of the 117-year-old Ferdinand Building. “It’s the American way, to keep the building facade and throw away the rest of the building,” quipped Francine Houben, founding partner at Mecanoo. “It’s a very complex site. Our composition is of natural stone to create strong corners and brick in between as a sort of glue.” The Ferdinand had been abandoned for nearly 40 years, Vizgaitis said, noting that structural instability necessitated gutting it and two other historic buildings on the site. “We were dealing with a lot of people’s cultural memories of what Dudley Square and the Ferdinand Building represented in the community,” Vizgaitis said, of the restoration of the three facades, down to the distinct blue mullion color of the original Ferdinand.
The architects have used the brick “glue” to bring life to the new structure. “There’s a lot of brick work in Boston, but it’s very flat,” said Houben. “We used the bricks to create shadow and a sense of movement, a quiet rhythm in a very sculptural way with vertical and horizontal lines. It’s really about showing craftsmanship.” The team sought to make the new structure harmonize with the historic details of the Ferdinand. The resulting masonry pattern shifts in richness of texture, with irregularly spaced windows and recessed mullions. The massing pulls away from the sidewalk as it rises, creating space for landscaped roof terraces and reducing the overall visual weight. A two-story mechanical penthouse continues the fenestration pattern at the center of the building and incorporates LED lighting that create random color washes.
“A major concern for the neighborhood was to create activity and energy past 5:00 pm,” said Vizgaitis. Up to 20,000 square feet of retail space surrounds a generous double-height public lobby, what the architects described as “the New Dudley Square.” It is large enough to hold public performances and a monumental public stair that doubles as seating. “You still experience the railroad as a form in the public spaces of the building,” said Houben. Textured wooden slats run through the ceiling backed by acoustical material and hiding a reconfigurable lighting scheme. “We wanted the public space to feel comfortable for people waiting for the bus and a space for the entire community.”
“Dudley Square is probably a new model for Boston in making a building for the city that serves the people, not just the workers inside,” said Vizgaitis. “No one wanted to create a giant fortress.”