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A theory for open building

Monday, 5 December 2011

Why do buildings last? How do we design flexible spaces that can change and adapt? 

A team from Shepley took on this question as part of the Open Building conference at Build Boston last month. The conference tasked three firms – Shepley, Payette, and Cannon – to propose a building that would evolve over time to house multiple uses on a large scale site in Somerville. We took the long historical view and, after a week of exhaustive debate, found that architectural systems which are designed to change rarely work or adapt as predicted by the architect.  Many prominent examples, such as the Nagakin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, or Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, are now slated for demolition.

From our survey of buildings that have managed to last and adapt, we identified several common criteria that seem critical to a building’s survival.  Of these criteria – Love, Serendipity, Durability, Morphology, Location, and Symbolism – only Durability and Morphology (and sometime Location) truly lie within the architect’s control.

For the Somerville site we took on Durability and Morphology, and proposed a series of massive stone walls, ten feet thick, twenty to sixty feet high, and spaced at intervals of thirty, sixty, or one hundred and twenty feet apart.  Conceived as an infrastructure for future development, we wanted to provide some constraints but leave open potentials for infill that could adapt to changes in the neighborhood and advances in technology.  In two thousand years we envision the walls uncovered by an archaeologist who, speculating about their provenance, may hypothesize that they had something to do with the sun.

In this proposal we argue for some humility in our profession. Instead of attempting to oversell ourselves and know the unknown, we can and should do the best we can with what we have, designing not for an unpredictable future but instead for our own time.

- Susannah Cramer-Greenbaum

Susannah Cramer-Greenbaum is a member of Shepley Bulfinch’s architectural staff and was the firm’s 2011 Summer Design Fellow. Susannah, Luke Voiland, Tad Jusczyk, and Angela Watson represented Shepley Bulfinch at the 2011 Open Building Conference.

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