Thursday, February 5, 2009

Allston skyline (1): the temple of Biotechnology

6 February

We don't have much of a skyline in Allston, and for the most part that's fine with us. The main exceptions occur along the Charles River, where the spacious perspective calls for large, even dramatic buildings, that would be out of scale anywhere else in the neighborhood. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the Genzyme manufacturing plant, an outsized and eccentric structure that asserts itself unashamedly in the foreground of the riverscape.

The building's design is said to owe much to Genzyme's eminent CEO, Henri Termeer, an architecture buff who wanted it to be compatible with the red-brick Harvard architecture it adjoins along the river. But a quick glance tells you that, red brick aside, the Genzyme factory has little in common with its Harvard neighbors. It has more to do with another red-brick neighbor, the power plant on the Cambridge side, particularly as the industrial uses of the Genzyme building show clearly through its oversized and deceptively contoured windows. But really the Genzyme plant looks like none of its neighbor structures, or anything else I've ever seen, except perhaps ... yes, a Gothic cathedral! Doesn't it? With its lofty nave-like shape, its clerestory windows, its side gables that suggest chapels, transepts, or even flying buttresses? Not a literal cathedral--the components are too oddly rearranged, and who ever heard of a red-brick cathedral? And not a complete one: it lacks a section, the apse, with sanctuary and apsidial chapels on the east end. But wait. All that scaffolding and those cranes working on the east side, are they going to complete the 'cathedral' structure at last? It's hard to tell right now, but from the designs I saw when the new project was launched, I think they might.

When the original plant opened, Mr. Termeer told reviewer Robert Campbell that he hoped the new building would be a "symbol of biotechnology," humankind's next great adventure. As it happened, Campbell wasn't buying, and instead he saw the architectural grandeur as merely mystifying. Campbell complained that the building's industrial uses are disguised by its elegant envelope, but Termeer's idea was just the opposite: to point to the ennobling possibilities in the new industry. Thousands of sufferers from Gaucher's disease will go on living because of work done in the Genzyme plant, just as pilgrims visited the original cathedrals in search of miraculous cures. 

Now that Harvard owns all the rest of that tract behind the Genzyme building--owns the building itself, with a long-term lease--there is every chance that that bold symbolic statement will come to mean much more than even the far-sighted Mr. Termeer might have predicted. Imagine stem-cell research going ahead full-speed just down the road in Stefan Behnisch's futuristically green laboratory buildings. Imagine that the rest of Harvard's new Science Complex is lit up with similar researches in biotechnology and the other sciences of our new century. The almost theological claims of the Genzymne plant's architecture--which Campbell and others called into question at the time--could be fulfilled in the new technological precincts of Harvard's Allston campus, a summum of enlightened scientific culture.  

Or not. Maybe prudence will triumph over vision, and Harvard will choose to hold on to its billions in endowment dollars, rather than invest them in fulfilling its campus idea. Maybe Termeer's monument will remain a lonely outpost of what could be. The great cathedrals took centuries to build, and the first generations never saw the fruits of their labors. But I take hope from the boldness of the Genzyme building, and look forward to the time when it stands for and points toward a renewed Allston.

No comments: