Despite Boston’s reputation for old brick and brownstone buildings, a wave of new construction has wedged modern structures between cherished colonials and Victorians. Founded in 2003 by Elizabeth Whittaker, Merge is one architectural firm leading the way, taking simple materials—like dowels and wire mesh—and transforming them into a sort of art. Whittaker chatted with us about her Boston projects.
How do you keep costs down and use interesting materials? On a lot of these housing projects, three out of four sides can be simple, because either they’re not visible or barely visible. … It allows us to put the real designs, ideas and ingenuity into a small portion of the project. We might do something really simple like corrugated metal on three sides so on the fourth side we can put money into an expensive wood or do a very interesting composition.
You came here from New York. What made you stay? I can raise my family here. We live right in the Seaport, blocks from my office. It also allows me to teach at a great school, at Harvard. And there is really an opportunity to turn things around and create contemporary work. New York is saturated, but I see Boston has a lot of room to grow, physically.
MISSING LINK (LEFT): Completed in 2014, the 9-condo building at 282 Marginal St. in East Boston has a facade of corrugated steel and cable mesh that contrasts with red cedar siding. BROADWAY DEBUT (RIGHT): The housing complex planned for West Broadway and E Street has the challenge of building on a lot that’s only 27 feet wide and wedged between existing buildings..
What are some of your favorite projects? One is Marginal Street Lofts in East Boston. We had to relate to the shipyard as well as to the scale of the triple-deckers that flanked it. There was a lot of chain-link fence that was pretty raw and brutal, so we tried to riff off that with a high-end, stainless steel mesh. We used a very high-end version of a very low-end product as this kind of beautiful finish. I think that project represents how to be resourceful.
What’s going on with the ultra-energy efficient Allandale project in West Roxbury. Wasn’t that approved and supposed to be completed? Poor Allandale … the good news is we finally got momentum on it again. We had quite a bit of opposition from the abutters, so we’ve gone back and redesigned it, lessened the density. It will begin construction in 2019.
GROUND ZERO: The modern European-style housing complex planned near Allandale Woods would boast zero-net energy use and offer solar roof panels.
As that example shows, building in Boston can be tough. The city approval process is super complicated and navigating the many demands of the neighborhoods can be tricky. But at the end of the day, you want to build really great architecture, you want the neighborhood to love your project. … Boston is such a vibrant community in terms of development. The city has been booming.
What is your favorite building? In Boston?
Anywhere. The Saarinen Chapel at MIT. It’s stood the test of time. There’s something that’s so simple and powerful about all the decisions that were made in the design of that project.