Tracking the shape of things to come at Harvard
Exhibition is built around green design
CAMBRIDGE - The architecture on display at Harvard is the architecture of the future. At least, I hope so.
It's the work of the German-based firm Behnisch Architects. Stefan Behnisch and his colleagues are best known here for their amazing Genzyme headquarters in East Cambridge.
They'll soon be known, too, as the architects of the first buildings Harvard will build in its new Allston campus, a large science complex due to begin construction in the spring. Both Genzyme and Allston are in the Harvard show, along with half a dozen other Behnisch designs.
The simple thing to say about Behnisch is that they're one of the world's leading proponents of what everyone now is calling "green architecture" - that is, architecture that doesn't fight nature but instead seeks to partner with it. Green architecture demands as little as possible in the way of natural resources while creating, ideally, rooms as pleasant to inhabit as a forest glade. Believe it or not, Genzyme actually accomplishes that latter goal.
The architects have designed the Harvard show to be, itself, an example of an instructive and delightful environment. There are the usual drawings, models, and wall panels of text. What's memorable is the fact that they're enclosed by eerily beautiful white patterned partitions which are recycled plexiglass insulation. They are translucent with a sort of moon glow, which suggests that even in the dark lobby of Harvard's Gund Hall these architects are determined to remind you what natural light looks like.
Overhead, big pendant lamps like opened umbrellas bring the ceiling down to human scale. Underfoot, the floors are panels of recycled wood chips, normally used as warehouse pallets.
You'd think that in architecture schools, of all places, this kind of caring for the quality of an exhibition as a human environment would be common. It's not.
The other gems of the show are those wall panels of text, often so boring in exhibitions. Here they talk about all the qualities of architecture that have nothing to do with the fashionable shape-making we too often get from celebrity architects. They talk about what makes a building pleasant for human beings, qualities like air, light, sound, and human scale, but also, less predictably, things like density and "enough complexity and mystery."
All these human qualities are discussed not from a romantic point of view but an engineering one. Behnisch is helping us figure out how to achieve and measure those virtues.
It's interesting that "density" is cited as a virtue. This is a word in the process of reversing its connotation. Only a few years ago, "density" was bad. People endlessly recycled ancient lore about laboratory rats being driven crazy from crowding.
But with the revival of interest in city life, a movement that goes back at least to the great urbanist Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s, "density" is becoming a plus word. Densely built environments, it is now recognized, need less energy. Manhattan, for example, is, by far, the greenest community in the United States, as measured by the amount of energy used per household or per capita.
And dense communities, if they contain a tight enough mix of many uses and activities, are places where you can walk or bike to many things, with no need for a gas-guzzling car. Density needn't require high-rise, either. Low-rise Cambridge and Somerville are among the most densely populated communities in the United States. Low-rise Paris is the densest city in the developed world.
Creating vibrant, dense, mixed-use environments is a Behnisch forte. A riverfront development in Pittsburgh is an example, where narrow people-scaled alleys lace together a rich variety of sizes and activities. Even in Allston, where Harvard research labs are the single dominant use, Behnisch introduces variety everywhere - in the loose, informal shapes of the buildings, in the way landscape and architecture interpenetrate, and in the social spaces that are tucked in everywhere.
Behnisch also respects what you might call the original DNA of Harvard: the green quad, surrounded by buildings, but always open at the corners so you can see through the quad to spaces beyond. For those who haven't visited the Allston project on display in Holyoke Center in Harvard Square, this exhibit is a good introduction.
I'm also an admirer of this architect's method of presenting buildings. There's a sort of mist of green everywhere, in the drawings and often, too, in the models. So much green may -or may not - prove to be a reality in a Boston winter. But it stands, in the exhibit, for a powerfully held conviction by these architects. If it's to some extent symbolic, it's also masterful visual salesmanship.
I've neglected a second firm that shares the exhibit with Behnisch. This is another German-based firm, Transsolar ClimateEngineering, climate specialists who collaborate on many Behnisch projects. The two work almost as a partnership.
Architecture is still architecture, which means that it's more than just green, or dense, or mysterious, or any other single quality. Stefan Behnisch and Transsolar's Matthias Schuler shared the podium for a lecture at Harvard a week and a half ago. With PowerPoint images, they presented a single building, a recreational public bathhouse in Bavaria, and described in detail the process they'd gone through in designing it, dealing rationally with all the issues of temperature, humidity, daylight, views to the outside, and so on.
The process sounded wonderful but the resulting building looked like a bore. Behnisch, for whatever reason, wasn't visually inspired this time. In a way, that fact is reassuring. It reminds us that no matter how much wisdom and thought you bring to architecture, there is always a need for imagination and talent too.
But that was the lecture. (Behnisch will also be giving a talk Tuesday at the Goethe-Institut Boston, on Beacon Street, on sustainable building design.) The exhibit is superb. I hope all students of architecture will want to visit it. Creating architecture that solves the problems of the environment is the challenge of the next generation. It's also an opportunity. Environmentally responsive architecture can hardly help looking more interesting than most of what we build today.
Robert Campbell is the Globe's architecture critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.