The challenge seemed enormous - fitting, really, considering the sheer size of the structure: At 1.7 million square feet, the new $850-million Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC) is New England’s largest building. But so was the vision and conventional wisdom of the project team. Combining the expectations of owner Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA) with the expertise of owner’s representative Tishman Construction Corp., the joint-venture architectural collaboration of HNTB Architecture Inc. and Rafael Vinoly Architects, and construction manager Clark/Huber, Hunt & Nichols/Berry (a joint venture), the BCEC is today one of the most dramatically airy, user-friendly, and technologically advanced meeting facilities in the world. Acclaimed as one of the best-run public works projects in the country, construction of the massive facility took just over 4 years.
The MCCA’s goal for the facility was to create a catalyst for growth in the local economy by attracting a wider, more diverse base of out-of-towners who would stay, do business, shop, and vacation in the area. At the same time, the BCEC would serve as an economic engine to lure investors to build an equally diverse base of commercial, residential, and mixed-use developments around the facility’s location, the South Boston Waterfront - which would, in turn, attract more convention delegates to town. “One of the other objectives,” says MCCA Executive Director James Rooney, “was to make something of a statement relative to the ‘new Boston.’ Although we wanted to respect the traditional, existing architecture, there was a desire to do something a bit more modern but in a way that would stand the test of time. Another goal was to adapt the structure to the particular geography of that specific site - one of the last development horizons within the city limits.”
Situated within two disparate urban conditions (the area to the north features large-scale mixed-use buildings; the area to the south is characterized by small residential buildings), the convention center effectively negotiates what could have been a difficult transition by following the change in elevation with a very long, gently sloped roof. To further integrate the complex into its surroundings and lessen its visual impact on the neighborhoods, the volume of the exhibition hall is surrounded by smaller-scale meeting rooms and social spaces. “We were looking for a grand gesture that embraced the direction toward the water,” explains Don Grinberg, FAIA, of Boston-based HNTB Architecture. “At the same time, the roof overhangs Summer Street, the main roadway connecting to the city’s financial district, so that was a way of giving the building a very strong civic address.”
Inside, V-shaped columns run along both sides of the exhibition hall and support the meeting rooms and social spaces on the upper floors. The arch of the roof and its exposed trusses are essentially a very elegant industrial shed that allows it to carry a free-span of over 50 meters, making the space extremely configurable and suitable for large installations. A “floating” pair of bridges above this unencumbered space connects the two sides of the building while providing more efficient circulation.
Condensing that expanse into a more pleasant and beautiful place involved a clever twist on “conventional” design, says Rafael Vinoly Architects’ Designer Chan-Li Lin, AIA, based in New York City. “Because its sheer size is so unique, we intended to give more architectural significance to the exhibit hall, rather than to treat it as a dark utilitarian big-box with dressed-up spaces in the front,” he says. “We wanted to make it a beautiful big-box surrounded by beautiful spaces. So, the exhibit hall is painted in light colors, played up with natural light, and a system of operable partitions hung from glass dividers and bridges maintains that effect, even when the rooms are divided into multiple segments.
“In giving the exhibit hall more architectural dignity, we also minimized the typical ‘back-of-house’ appearance by surrounding the exhibit hall with meeting and prefunction areas along the east and west sides so there [are] no perceived back or loading-dock conditions facing the public and the neighborhood.” The result, adds HNTB’s Grinberg, “is a very successful attempt to humanize the scale of the large spaces - a combination of large areas driven by the program within a design that’s very accessible and clearly organized.”
And technologically advanced. All areas of the building feature WiFi, state-of-the-art audiovisual capabilities, and interruption-free cellular phone coverage, ensuring that the BCEC is a customer-friendly and high-tech venue filling a crucial need in the city’s tourism market.
Translating a vision into reality is only as possible as the sum of its parts. Across the board, the project team points to its collaborative nature as the driving force behind the success of the center. “This was a fast-track public project which has the potential to be a disaster,” says Dan McQuade, executive vice president at Tishman Construction Corp.’s Boston office. “At the same time, the level of public and press scrutiny on the project was unusually intense. The team worked hand-in-hand with us as an extension of the convention center staff in orchestrating the permitting, the design, and the construction of the biggest building in the region on time and under budget. We actually created a public process, which has now been adopted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for all of its large projects.”
But the bottom line? “It’s just a great design, a great building,” notes McQuade. “We’re all very proud.”
Linda K. Monroe ([email protected]) is editorial director at Buildings magazine.