Novartis has selected Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., as the architect and designer of its new campus to be built on Massachusetts Avenue just north of MIT, at the former Analog Devices site, between Albany Street and Windsor Street.
Novartis discussed Lin’s selection at a presentation before Cambridge’s zoning committee on Tuesday evening. Novartis is seeking two zoning changes: to permit an increase in maximum height from 120 feet to 140 feet, and to increase the permitted gross floor area from 415,250 sq. ft. to 528,500 sq. ft.
The Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research’s east campus will include MIT Building N42, a 30,000-square-foot “castle”-like building currently home to the Information Systems and Technology computing helpdesk. While the new campus will primarily be research facilities, Novartis envisions N42 containing a daycare center or gathering space, “adaptable for a softer use.” The N42 building, at 211 Mass Ave, will keep its current appearance. Both the Analog Devices parcel and N42 are being leased from MIT.
Maya Lin designed the Memorial Wall in 1981 while she was an undergraduate at Yale University, winning the public design competition. Since then, she has produced numerous public works of art and has branched out into architecture, generally smaller buildings. Lin, who lives in New York City, recently designed a new building for the Museum of Chinese in America in New York. Lin’s website showcases much of her work (http://www.mayalin.com).
Lin was at MIT in October giving the annual Page Hazlegrove Lecture in Glass Art. Peter B. Houk, director of the MIT Glass Lab, said, “the selection of Maya Lin is great here because of her dual talents as artist and architect. So much of her work in both public art and architecture has been about sensitivity to the site and surroundings, and not just focused on a building by itself, on a lot.”
Philip L. Khoury, MIT’s associate provost who focuses on arts, called Lin “a wonderful choice to design the Novartis campus next to MIT,” in an email. “She is a tremendously talented artist and architect who at a very young age became a legend.”
Novartis zoning changes
Novartis’s presentation before the Cambridge Planning Board was well-received. Jeffrey Lockwood, Novartis’s global head of communications, described Novartis’ desire to be part of the Cambridge community and how drug discovery is “one of the most complex endeavors on the planet … a combination of science, art, and serendipity.”
Lockwood emphasized that Novartis has collaborations with MIT, Harvard, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Mass. General Hospital, and the Broad Institute.
The design of the project was presented by Thomas Sieniewicz of Chan Krieger NBBJ’s Harvard Square office, who is collaborating with Lin. He called Lin “incredibly sensitive to site and place.”
Sieniewicz said Novartis intends to “create a campus in a city that’s full of campuses — and that’s not a mistake.”
Sieniewicz described a site plan (see figure) with a large open green central space in an area with “virtually no green space”; low building height near Mass. Ave. and taller sections bordering Osborne and St. and State St. The height increase is being requested to account for the space lost by keeping the Mass Ave. heights low, consistent with the surrounding buildings.
Novartis intends to hire a second architect to design one of the structures, “so it won’t be one hand,” Sieniewicz said. Lin will design the building that wraps from Mass Ave, around Albany St. and down Osborne St. Lockwood said that they have the second architect narrowed down and would have an agreement “in the near future.”
There will also be retail property along Mass. Ave, they said.
The one public comment was offered by Charles Marquardt, a former Cambridge City Council candidate and local activist, who was wildly enthusiastic about the rezoning and Novartis’ plans.
Iram Farooq, a project planner with the City’s department of Community Development offered many technical comments on zoning issues, but they are not critical of the petition.
Novartis has hired local attorney James Rafferty to guide them through the permitting process, and Rafferty led the presentation before the board. Rafferty is a fixture of the Cambridge licensing and zoning establishments, and enjoys the respect of and familiarity with the board members.
Rafferty noted that the 20-foot height increase was accompanied by a 50-foot height decrease elsewhere.
It remains unclear whether the green space and courtyard would be open and accessible to the public, or whether they would be gated.
Novartis’ existing campus, west of Mass. Ave., has public pedestrian walkways through it, but they are bounded by imposing black metal gates which are open during daytime hours. Lockwood said he did not know if the new campus would be similarly gated.
Reaction of the planning board
The zoning board was uniformly positive in reaction to the zoning petition, and it appeared Novartis had a lot of credibility in their eyes, likely as a result of its successful efforts at revitalizing the former Necco factory that currently houses its campus west of Mass. Ave.
The board was conscious of the number of projects being proposed in this area of Cambridge and of the potential interaction between Novartis’ and MIT’s upcoming Kendall Square proposal, as well as Forest City’s proposal for the Mass Ave. block just north of Random Hall. Forest City’s formal petition for zoning changes was submitted to the City Council on Feb. 28 and is scheduled to be discussed by the zoning board at the end of April.
No explicit dates were given for when a decision would be made about the zoning petition. It goes before the Cambridge Ordinance Committee next week, and the Ordinance Committee and zoning board may take several months to make a recommendation to the City Council, though the planning board expressed a desire to move expeditiously in this case.
The petition will also be considered by the City’s consultants examining the Kendall Square to Central Square region, said Assistant City Manager Brian Murphy. Murphy said that the consultants had been selected and would be announced at next Monday’s Cambridge City Council meeting.
Maya Lin, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment for this article, siting contractual confidentiality restrictions.