When students first walk into the newest building at Northeastern University, they sometimes utter an audible “Wow.” The students get it right. This is a five-star piece of architecture.
Formally, it’s the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex . Since that name is a 16-syllable nightmare, everyone just calls the place ISEC (pronounced EYE-seck).
ISEC isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste aesthetically. We’ll get to that later. But in an era when Boston is being swamped with buildings that are little more than boxes of leasable space, ISEC reminds you that architecture can aim much higher. The architect is the long-established Boston firm now known as Payette.
ISEC is a six-story collection of labs and support spaces for research and teaching. Subjects are diverse, to say the least. A few I’ve heard mentioned include computer and information science, computational biology, genomics, health science, cyber security, robotics, and bio-engineering. The building has three parts: a lab wing, an office wing, and an atrium in between. ISEC is the first major Northeastern building in what’s likely to be an ongoing expansion of the university into the historic Roxbury neighborhood.
The main entrance is what prompts the students’ awe. You step directly from city streets and plazas through a glass wall into a five-story skylit atrium that explodes with light and energy. The atrium feels magical, an airy oasis in the crowded city. There’s just a hint of theme-park architecture in some of the details, for instance a white corkscrew staircase that hangs high in the air as if awaiting the descent of Snow White.
The atrium gives you access to the rest of ISEC. It’s wide open and you feel you can see everyone and everything at once. Labs are directly visible through glass walls, and office corridors overlook the space like mountain-goat trails. Some windows look into the atrium rather than out to the city, where the immediate view is of parking garages. Members of the public, with no Northeastern connection, can walk in unhindered and enjoy the cool summer air. Or they can buy a sandwich at the cafeteria, which stands near the entrance.
With so much happening in one multipurpose space, the atrium is a metaphor for the collaborative life of a campus and university of diverse people and interests. It’s also a statement that Northeastern isn’t going to back into Roxbury. The university has put its best foot forward. ISEC gives the university a front-door presence in the community.
The building as you see it from outdoors is very different. It stands on the paved plaza like a big gloomy sculpture of glass and metal. It has a retro feeling, as if a huge machine tool from some factory of the industrial era has somehow dropped out of the sky.
What especially grabs your attention is a wide section, the office wing, that thrusts forward from the rest of the building like a catcher’s mask. It’s faced with a rigid screen of bronze metal fins. The fins are like bars and they make the building look armored and defensive. This is not the image you want to create when you hope to be welcomed into a new neighborhood.
It’s a clash of values. The screen of fins modulates the heat and glare of the sun and thus becomes a visible statement of the university’s concern with issues of climate and energy. Moral: You can admire the architecture for boldly expressing its good intentions, and still find it a little grim.
ISEC’s story could have been another case of an institution invading a neighborhood and establishing a beachhead for further growth. It’s happened in other parts of Boston but not in Roxbury, not here anyway. That’s partly because the design of ISEC heals an old wound rather than opening a new one.
The wound in question is the rail corridor that serves Amtrak, the Orange Line, and commuter trains. It slashes through town and neatly isolates Northeastern from Roxbury. You can’t comfortably walk or bike from one side to the other. The university wanted to expand. But it couldn’t build any major building in Roxbury while the site was so isolated from the main campus.
So ISEC’s designers had to create more than a building. They had to find a way to cross the tracks. The solution is a spectacular new bridge. Designed but not yet built, the bridge will rise from a corner of ISEC in a slow curve as it climbs high enough to sweep above the trains and descend into the old campus. It will carry pedestrians and cyclists, including members of the public. It’s scheduled to open late in 2018.
The bridge is another of ISEC’s virtues. It’s a good neighbor. By helping itself, it helps its community. The bridge will sew the university together as a single campus. Equally important, it will help reconnect two parts of the city that feel very separate but are actually cheek to cheek.
With so much happening in one multipurpose space, the atrium is a metaphor for the collaborative life of a campus of diverse people and interests.
There’s one more way to look at this fascinating building. That’s to see it as an icon.
Northeastern’s president, Joseph Aoun, was deeply involved in every stage of ISEC’s development. He knew what he wanted: a building that would say “university” without saying “Harvard” or “MIT.”
In conversation, Aoun repeatedly uses the word “iconic.” “Iconic” is overused today and usually doesn’t mean much. What’s often forgotten is that it’s the adjectival form of the word “icon.” That’s the way Aoun uses it.
An icon is a small object or image that represents some larger system of beliefs or practices. On your computer, all icons are different. Icons don’t look alike. You click on an icon and a previously invisible program opens.
I think that’s what makes ISEC iconic to Aoun. He sees is as the unique symbol of a larger reality. Crossing the tracks is a moment in the university’s life when it can celebrate the recent past while accepting the dare of an equally dramatic future.
Northeastern has been reinvented in the past generation. A school in decline, best known for its work-study co-op program, has morphed into a thriving research university. Between 2006-16, its rank among US colleges and universities rose from 98th to 39th, as measured by US News & World Report. Last year, the school says, it received 50,000 applications for 2,300 places. Satellite campuses have opened in Seattle, Toronto, Charlotte, N.C., and San Jose, Calif. The co-op program, in which students spend some time on campus and some working at jobs elsewhere, is still the heart of the school. But it’s now called experiential learning, and co-op students come from and go all over the world.
It’s just another way of looking at the architecture of ISEC. An iconic building shouldn’t resemble any other, or it wouldn’t be iconic. ISEC certainly qualifies by that criterion. I’m grateful for architecture that expresses so many ambitions. It would be nice if it happened more often.Robert Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.