I recently received a pop-up greeting card from The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA). It has a beautiful dichotomy: simple and complex at the same time. Created from one piece of paper, its laser-cut scores and perforations create the structure that enables the distilled profile of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro building to project into space. As you open the card, the building pops out of the single sheet of paper in the same way as it does on the Boston Harbor.
The back of the greeting card states that the building has a “distinctive cantilever, shifting perspectives on Boston Harbor, and weaving together of contemplative space and dynamic public areas.” The building, in short, is responding to its context. Context in written language can be described as the words or phrases that surround a particular word in order to help explain the word’s full meaning. In architecture, context is the space or environment in which a building is constructed. Environment can encompass the geographical location, the culture, or time period in which it is constructed. Architects consider the context in which they are working and draw inspiration from it, creating structures that respond to the surroundings.
The ICA is an example of the play between building and context (or site). The architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) responded to the site, in this case the Boston Harbor, by constructing a building that frames views of the harbor in several places. The building’s signature feature—the enormous cantilever—juts out to the edge of the harbor. A slice of the cantilever steps down to create the mediatheque that contains computer workstations that enable guests to research and access digital artwork. A large window, termed the “gallery box” frames users’ view of the harbor. According to the ICA’s Web site, this programmatic element “provides a stunning perspective of the water, framed as though through a viewfinder, with neither sky nor horizon in sight.” Poetic.
The front of the building itself faces the harbor side; users are left to approach the building from its side and back. This move emphasizes the architects’ desire to underscore the importance of the harbor/building relationship.
Another way in which DS+R interacts with the context is through their choice of material. DS+R chose to continue the use of the wood planks used at Fan Pier to construct the outdoor public seating. This grandstand seating merges with Boston’s forty-seven-mile “HarborWalk.” The plaza and café follow suit, using the same wood planks and merging with the existing public space. These same planks also bleed from the exterior grandstand seating to the interior theater floor. The architects have created a theater with glass walls—which provide a stunning view of the water, again emphasizing the importance of the harbor. The glass can be altered from totally translucent to completely opaque, depending on the needs of the performance.
The boundaries between exterior and interior continue to blur. The ground floor is constructed from three materials: transparent glass, translucent glass, and metal. Alternating the materials encourages the public space that surrounds the ICA to diffuse into the ICA itself. Almost the entire ground floor is devoted to café, gift shop, and lobby space—spaces that the public can access without paying the entry fee. It seems that the architects are erasing the barriers of the building (walls/doors that keep the public out) and are instead welcoming the public in to experience the space. The boundaries of interior and exterior are blurred—demonstrating the importance of context in the concept of this design.
My friends, who sent the greeting card, are also architects. They were amazed at what little space was actually devoted to gallery use. Instead, DS+R were primarily responding to the city’s call for a contemporary piece of architecture to jump-start harbor development. The idea is to bring people down to the water; consequently, the construction of public space is very important to both the overarching concept for the building and the development of the waterfront as a whole. The choice of materials and the vast public space, coupled with shifting views of the harbor, responds to the context—both the geographical location and the time in which it was constructed.
Photo: Peter Vanderwarker