MassArt’s new residence hall on Huntington Avenue is fast becoming what it was always meant to be: a Boston landmark.

“It should read like a painting on the skyline, “ the students said. And the architects, ADD Inc., complied, creating a $61 million work of art inspired by Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life. Anyone who has seen it knows how extraordinary this building is.

What’s less obvious is the extent of collaboration involved in its conception, development, design and construction. Mass College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) and Wentworth Institute of Technology have been involved from the beginning and will share the hall’s health center and café. Some MCPHS students will live there.

MassArt has also worked closely with the Mass State College Building Authority, which issued the bonds that financed the project.  According to architect Tamara Roy, “It was a tripartite relationship throughout. The MSCBA attended every meeting and even made funds available to commission artworks from MassArt alumni. “

Collaboration didn’t stop there. Although it wasn’t required, MassArt executive vice president Kurt Steinberg took the project to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. He also sat down with neighborhood groups to be sure they were comfortable with the plan. “The new residence hall is great for the school and great for the City,” he said.“The MFA, the Gardner and Mass College of Pharmacy have all done their parts. Now it’s our turn. This is our contribution to the Avenue of the Arts.”

When the client is an art school…

For Professor Paul Hajian, putting his architecture students together with professionals on a real project was a rare opportunity.  He chose the café as the focus for the assignment. It was the right size, it would fulfill an important function, and the timing was perfect for the spring semester.

To start, each of his seven architecture students worked on individual concepts. They were coached by Professor Hajian and the two architects, Tamara Roy and B.K. Boley. They regularly held classes at ADD’s offices, utilizing the architects’ resources and participating in discussions of how ideas could be implemented. After three weeks, they presented their work to a committee of stakeholders.

“The experience seemed to raise the bar,” Hajian said. “The students did even better work than they would have otherwise.” Everyone was impressed by the students’ ideas; they had a better understanding of what student users would want. “The first thing the class brought up was the issue of how late the café would be open,” Hajian said. “The idea of it being closed at night made no sense to them. As a result, it was decided to keep it open much later than it would have been otherwise.”

John Lemoine, one of the architecture students, said the concept that emerged was based on a MassArt event called the Iron Pour. “The visual language was one of intense energy, fiery reds, molten metal, sparks flying.”

The class had another idea: a long, central table set in the middle of the room. “We loved it,” said Tamara Roy. “It was unconventional but highly practical, a place where the kids could sit and work together.” Hajian thought so too. “This approach to the seating question probably wouldn’t have been suggested by anyone but a student designer.”

Another of Hajian’s students, Whitney Wagner, said, “We were able to go further into the design process because it was actually being built. We got a much deeper view than we could have otherwise.”

But the students had to contend with real-world challenges. Lemoine recalls, “They had an industrial engineer at ADD who made us work out the practical realities of aesthetic decisions. If you specified a metal wall with cut-outs for TV screens, fine, but the engineer wanted to know how the TVs would be accessed for servicing. You couldn’t just propose an idea and pretend it would work.”

Ultimately, the students created a full-scale model of the café out of white foamcore and set it up in a storefront near the architects’ office. It gave people the opportunity to feel the actual geometry of the place, to understand what the end-users would experience.

A graphic arts class, working in parallel, created a brand ID for the café, naming it “Spoon”. In fact, students had a lot to say about everything, from the design of the dorm rooms to the nature and structure of the landscaped seating areas outside, which, they insisted, should immediately communicate MassArt’s essence and personality. 

The Tree of Life in 21 stories.

B.K. Boley and Tamara Roy proposed using Klimt’s painting Tree of Life as a metaphor for the building, then set about executing their idea with an astonishing degree of creativity. 

They devised a cladding system for the façade that included 5500 panels, in five colors, arranged at five different depths.

“The colors range from gold to rust, creating a woody, bark-like effect” Roy said. “Varying the depths of the panels imparted a sense of texture and physicality. The green panels suggest leaves. Finally, the base of the building is curved like the trunk of a tree and the top flares out. We weren’t trying to simulate a real tree, of course. The objective was to create something that was not only striking, but organic, exuberant and proud. A building appropriate to the school’s purpose.” 

Everyone agrees they succeeded. As the BostonGlobe’s Robert Campbell put it recently: Your first mistaken impression is likely to be that the panels are varnished wood. They create a remarkable sense of warmth and craftsmanship.

Uses 23% less energy than code.

MassArt’s new residence hall has more than aesthetics going for it. Even for a building in the Longwood Medical Area, a neighborhood renowned for its commitment to sustainability, this structure rates high.

Kurt Steinberg pointed out that design and engineering decisions were made with the solar orientation in mind. Thus, there are more windows on the north side to provide the kind of light artists like, and fewer on the south side to reduce heat gain.

Other green features include high efficiency mechanical and ventilation equipment, energy recovery systems, lighting sensors, white roofs, and a double-insulated skin. Windows are operable and there is a system to alert students when it’s advisable to open or shut their windows.

As for construction, more than 50% of the material used has recycled content, 20% came from local sources, and 70% of the wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

The new hall has received a Silver LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Who do we thank?  A lot of people.

MassArt President-Emerita Kay Sloan observed: "The development of this residence hall demonstrates what can be accomplished when colleges work together.”

According to Kurt Steinberg, “…Sloan's vision of the physical transformation of MassArt was the driving force behind the new residence hall.  Her understanding of the need to increase our on-campus population from 22% to 38%--and what that would mean academically and socially for the students--was critical to the project.”

Steinberg believes it was Sloan’s commitment to the Colleges of the Fenway that led to the partnerships with MCPHS and Wentworth.

As Professor Paul Hajian sees it, it’s just the MassArt way. “Doing things collectively is in this school’s DNA,” he says.  “We collaborate on everything.”

Photos by Peter Vanderwarker