From Within to Without [M1]

This studio will explore the notion of interiority in the public realm by reimagining an existing mid-sized commercial building. As e-commerce, shifting consumer habits, and diminishing demand for retail space alter the social, environmental, and urban fabric of communities, these same circumstances invite innovative design opportunities. How can new life inhabit a building’s interior and surrounding environs is the question that leads our studio to the Design Research (D/R) Building, designed in the late 60s at 48 Brattle Street in Harvard Square.

Denounced by some as a decade of turbulence and disillusionment, the Sixties is also noted as a revolutionary period in which civil rights, feminism, protests against the Vietnam War, and the emergence of the gay and lesbian movement marked a radical departure from conservative norms and outmoded values to usher the beginning of a new era. Nowhere else is this sweeping transformation better illustrated than in cinema, music, dance, and design.

In 1969, set against the political and social tensions of the times, Cambridge-based architectural firm Benjamin Thompson and Associates realized the Design Research (D/R) Building. Described as a place where people could buy everything needed for contemporary living, the awe-inspiring shop artfully presented a selection of home furnishings, clothing, toys, music, food, and drink. The 22,000-square-foot building’s frameless glass façade, expansive open plan, and uniformly finished floors in the same brick as the neighborhood sidewalks render an architecture of elemental simplicity and salient presence. At its peak, D/R’s prominently visible interior from the street performed, in part, as a public theater that extended a cohesiveness and depth to Harvard Square. That no longer exists. This coveted symbol of urban architecture has faded over time, in sync with the neighborhood’s dwindling character, into a lifeless shell with an uncertain future.

Harnessing Cambridge’s innovative spirit and Harvard Square’s scattered sublimities of experience, design, cuisine, and the like, students will develop strategies for infusing the D/R Building with renewed relevance and engagement. The premise is one of mutability: as life changes, so should the building and its interior. The environment Ben Thompson sought to create, inside and out, resulted from giving equal consideration to all design elements — a teacup, a chair, an apron — as he did with the architecture. Good design is good design. Similarly, we see no separation between architecture and interior design. Moreover, we see the interior as an agent of change, offering programmatic, spatial, and architectural implications. Accordingly, this studio will engage the D/R Building from within to reimagine a new interiority. By actively operating at various scales, we believe it is possible to speculate on how the studio’s insights might set the tone for a renaissance of sorts, serving as a microcosm for what could come of Harvard Square. What possible futures await as we contemplate the notion of without from within?

In this studio, students will leverage a myriad of cultural, economic, environmental, social, and technological possibilities. We will begin the 7-week studio with an inquiry into unique, small-scale environments that examine the past to know what has been lost and how these lost elements, in terms of experience, can be reclaimed in light of current times. The collective reproduction of scaled drawings and models of the D/R Building will follow. These artifacts will serve as ideation tools for ensuing design investigations. A large-scale physical model, digital rendering, and floor plan will be the primary modes of representation at the final review.