Renée Loth

Concrete link

Design marks gateway to the Harbor Islands

(Utile, Inc.)
By Renée Loth
May 21, 2011

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BOSTON’S LOVE affair with brick is well known. From the State House to the Old North Church to the façade of Fenway Park, the familiar red clay confers a sense of solidity, history, and class. It doesn’t matter if the architectural style is Georgian or Federal; if it’s brick, it says Boston. There’s even a Sam Adams limited edition “Boston Red Brick’’ microbrew. The architectural devotion to Boston brick may partly explain the city’s tacit resistance to granite or cement or similar materials, especially when it comes to public buildings. It’s as if Boston was traumatized by its brief fling with the brutalism style in the 1960s, which gave us Government Center. The style was meant to convey strength and power, but the concrete of that period is also associated with an abuse of power, when whole neighborhoods were sacrificed for urban renewal.

Enter into the discussion the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion, the first permanent structure on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which opens June 2. Its soaring open-air beauty and its centrality to Boston’s evolving new public space is part of what architect Tim Love calls his “secret plan to get Boston to love concrete again.’’

The pavilion is built largely of granite, wood, and steel. But its roof of poured concrete is as light and fluid as canvas. Depending on the point of view, it looks something like a sail, or a seagull, or the inside of a whale. The floor features a topographic map of the Harbor islands etched into a grid of slate and bronze. It is welcoming and functional, a contemporary take on traditional materials — but not brick.

“I don’t like the taste divide between the modernists and the classicists,’’ said Love, principal of the architecture and planning firm Utile. “We think that materials are ideologically neutral.’’

The pavilion is the long-sought gateway to the Harbor Islands National Recreational Area, 1,600 acres of underutilized natural glory just 20 minutes from downtown. This azure necklace of 34 island gems has suffered from spotty ferry service, low visibility, and poor coordination among the many jurisdictions — state, federal, and non-profit — that manage it. The new pavilion will bring together the National Park Service, whose rangers will staff it, and the non-profit Boston Harbor Island Alliance, which will operate and maintain it.

The pavilion will make it easier for visitors to navigate their way to the islands. But Tom Powers, president of the Alliance, also sees it as “part of the integration of the Greenway.’’ It will be a hub both physically and institutionally, alerting visitors to other activities on the Greenway or at the New England Aquarium nearby, and drawing what has so far been a scarce resource — people — onto and across the park.

The building will even include a small retail space for the Alliance to sell maps and other items. More than two years after the official park opening, its stewards are still too queasy about commercial activity. The elusive goal of “activating the Greenway’’ will probably have to involve some commerce.

As befits a building dedicated to promoting the natural world, the pavilion has incorporated green features, including a solar roof that powers the large LED panels that will attract visitors even at night, and a rainwater catch basin that irrigates the adjacent lawn. It will use zero net energy.

But perhaps the pavilion’s most important role will be in knitting together the disparate parcels that once straddled the elevated Central Artery. The way it sits on the Greenway, and the way visitors approach it, work a kind of trick of perspective. The Harbor, the Christopher Columbus Park, Quincy Market, and the mercantile wharf buildings all seem to pull in closer, inviting a walk to the sea.

Powers of the Island Alliance likes to envision a day when “the islands are really considered the city’s backyard . . . and people think about them the way Manhattan residents think about Central Park.’’ Ferries would run every 15 minutes; fares would be affordable; workers would take their lunch breaks amid the tangle of rugosa roses and briny air.

Tim Love has his own audacious ambition: “Our next goal is to design a brick building that modernists can love.’’

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.