In Harmony with History

SOURCE: Boston Globe
BY: Robert Campbell
DATE: November 6, 2011
See the original article at Boston

In Harmony with History

Architecture isn’t only about important buildings, or about the highly publicized so-called “starchitects’’ who design them. Architecture is the art we all live in. For better or worse, it shapes our ordinary lives, our homes and streets and neighborhoods.

You might not even notice, walking or driving by, the new apartment building at 691 Massachusetts Ave. in the South End. That’s because it fits so beautifully into its historic neighborhood. But take a second look, and you realize that this building isn’t just deferential to its surroundings. It’s also fresh, inventive, confident, and contemporary. (So were its neighbors, long ago, when they were new.)

The site was a vacant lot, where six decrepit townhouses had been demolished. For years it was an ugly gap tooth, more than 100 feet wide, in the architectural face of Mass. Ave. Then a small South End developer, Kamran Zahedi of Urbanica Inc., decided to fill it in with 40 new condos.

Zahedi made a courageous decision. He hired a pair of young architects known mostly for restaurant interiors and asked them to design a façade for his apartment house that would be beautiful and harmonious with the South End.

Anthony J. Piermarini and Hansy L. Better Barraza, the architects, are a married couple still in their 30s. They call their firm Studio Luz, Spanish for “light.’’ (Better Barraza is from Colombia; Piermarini is from Leominster.) Among their local designs are the Diva Lounge in Davis Square, Fin’s Japanese Sushi and Grill in Kenmore Square, and Mela restaurant and Seiyo Sushi and Wine Shop in the South End.

Zahedi’s own firm designed the rest of 691, but he figured he needed help with the façade. It presented a fascinating problem. On one side of the vacant lot was a row of typical South End townhouses, with high stoops and red-brick bow-front facades. On the other side was a four-story apartment house in Renaissance style, faced in warm gray limestone. For Studio Luz, the design challenge was to create a building that would relate to both sides, yet possess a contemporary character of its own.

Look at the façade photo. Even though 691 is a single building with one major entrance, it continues the row-house rhythm and scale of the bow-fronts on the right. The principal façade material is red terra-cotta, which picks up the color of the brick houses. Six protruding windows – what architects call oriels – remind you of the six bow-fronts that once stood on this site. They lend richness and depth to the façade.

Now look at the Renaissance building at the left. The new façade connects well here, too. A top story mimics the height of the neighbor and matches its flatness and pale color. New and old windows are of similar proportions, and the new ones even have a ghost of the Renaissance cornices.

The South End is a landmark district, and 691 had to pass muster with the preservation community and Boston’s planning staff. The architects say they got support from both. Historic districts can be fascinating. I’m still trying to figure out what is meant by the South End design guidelines when they call for façades that are “a series of vertical modules stacked horizontally.’’

There are two other ways this building could have been designed. It could have copied the historic architecture around it. That would be the Disneyland solution. But such a so-called “authentic reproduction’’ – a term that’s an oxymoron to begin with – usually looks like a stage set, because it has to be built with today’s technologies, which don’t include piling up heavy stone and brick bearing walls. A building must adapt to its era. It can’t, for instance, imitate the high stoops of the old South End because stoops don’t permit wheelchair access. As life changes, so must architecture.

The other alternative would have been to ignore the historic context altogether and just build something new and different. Aside from the landmark issues, it’s hard to see how such a building, no matter how well done, could offer the fascinating interplay with neighbors and with history that we see in 691.

There’s one other way in which 691 is contextual. It mimics the proliferation of galleries, restaurants, and art spaces that now occupy the lowest levels of so many South End buildings. On the ground floor are what developer Zahedi calls Small Office Home Office, or “SoHo,’’ units: six spaces with direct access from the sidewalk, each of which is conceived as a live-in home office or gallery.

Six ninety-one proves it’s possible to be a member of a family of buildings without dressing like your grandparents. It’s a model of how to build in a historic district.