A First Look at the New BSA Headquarters

Is this bold, contemporary space going to shake things up? Let's hope so.

For decades, the Boston Society of Architects was somewhat of an old-boy club that met furtively in a tiny, vertical building tucked away on Broad Street. If anyone wanted to get a sense of what the city’s architects were thinking about, they could squeeze into the elevator foyer on the first floor and check out whatever was hanging in the tiny, unmanned gallery—usually design boards and a few Architecture Boston magazines.

Meanwhile, architecture chapters across the country were taking on more public roles. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia all opened retail and exhibit spaces in the past couple of years to draw people into their organizations and get the tourists and locals alike thinking about what architects do. It was a smart choice. Not only did these efforts generate revenue, but they also gave the profession a certain sheen.

Yes! This is in Boston! Photo by Howeler Yoon.

Finally, the BSA is following suit with the opening of its own new headquarters at Russia Wharf. After holding a design competition, the organization chose local theory darlings Eric Howeler and Meejin Yoon of Howeler Yoon Architects, who teach at Harvard and MIT respectively. They’re young-ish (40 39 ), they’re hip, and they’re smart.

The BSA headquarters is on Fort Point Channel, above the new Smith and Wolensky.

The toughest part of the BSA assignment was getting the public to come on in. That’s because the bulk of the space is stuck on the second floor so there’s no enticing storefront. Howeler and Yoon’s answer: Build a huge, bright green bent-steel staircase with glass risers up against the windows so that anyone passing by asks, “What the hell is that? Built in three five parts in Michigan and assembled on site, the staircase cost a little over half a million dollars (not cheap), but does a lot of visual work. And ironically, its design required the architects to get a code variance (usually, that many steps require a landing). Love it.

The welcome desk, awaiting the people. Photo by Howeler Yoon.

The second floor cedes huge amounts of real estate to public exhibit space where over, under gallerists Chris Grimley, Mark Pasnik, and Michael Kubo set up a fine first show covering Boston’s best contemporary works and a visual history of the MBTA. Their next show, opening in the summer, will be all things bike and Boston, my two favorite topics. The green theme continues on up here in the form of a fully equipped ceiling plane (you got your lights, your diffusers, structure to hang things from).

Second floor view. Photo by Howeler Yoon.

With its ultra contemporary design and prominent positioning, the BSA’s new space is making a bold statement about where the profession is heading. It’s also beckoning the younger generation to join up (a notoriously independent demographic, mind you) while warning the old guard that modern and Boston can finally coexist peacefully. I have a feeling this is going to ruffle some feathers. But given the abysmal state of the profession, going public and shaking things up might be the best gift the BSA has given its members in decades.