Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research

Maya Lin, Toshiko Mori, and Michael Van Valkenbergh, with Cannon Design, 2016

As the international pharmaceutical industry has been drawn to East Cambridge by MIT and Harvard, high-end architecture has followed.

Novartis engaged Maya Lin, the sculptor/architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., and Toshiko Mori, former architecture department chair at Harvard, to design their flagship buildings here across the street from the Necco candy factories the company had converted to labs several years earlier. Lin developed the plans for the front of the site, while Mori designed the large building to the rear. Van Valkenburg's rolling courtyard ties the complex together.

Lin's floating, perforated granite facade hanging in front of a glass curtain wall is a striking, sculptural addition to a long-neglected streetscape, suggesting another massive organism has landed in the neighborhood, perhaps to keep company with Steven Holl's Simmons Hall around the corner on Vassar St. Street-level retail preserves the vitality of the block. Inside a modest entry to pulled back from the street, Novartis' wood-lined atrium greets visitors; fans of Saarinen's nearby Kresge auditorium at MIT will feel at home, if perhaps a bit adrift, in the soaring space.

To the rear, Mori's lab building puts the focus on encouraging research collaboration via broad sightlines and spaces that are flexibile for reconfiguration. The open staircase running the full length of the building is expressed on the facade. Open floorpans emphasize natural daylighting, an unexpected feature in a biomedical research facility.

As a new gateway into Central Square, this project is transformative, but not intrusive. Its massing moves the bulk of the buildings to the rear of the site, maintaining the scale along Mass Ave., while its integration of the 100 year-old Barta Building, though it seems incongruous, helps knit the project into the neighborhood.

Images: ©Anton Grassl / Esto