Boston's District Hall Gustav Hoiland/Flagship Photo

As cities go wild for innovation, Boston's award-winning District Hall tries to distill the concept into physical form.

Boston's Innovation District is so new that on Google Earth, this former working waterfront—set on one-and-a-half square miles of landfill—is still just a wasteland of surface parking. But those windswept lots are quickly disappearing as office towers and condos spring up to house the start-ups, tech companies, and hip young workers that the city has been trying to lure since before former Mayor Tom Menino christened the neighborhood with its optimistic name in 2010.

The district is already home to some 200 companies—established biotech operations, venture capital firms, and buzzy robotics start-ups—along with a gigantic convention center, hotels, trendy restaurants, Irish bars, and the city's Institute of Contemporary Art. While the neighborhood has had no problem drumming up business, manufacturing the sense of community one might find in a place that developed more organically is another matter.

"The Innovation District has all the charm of an office park in a suburb of Dallas," the Boston Globe's Pulitzer-winning architecture critic, Robert Campbell, wrote last month, in a scathing front page review of the district's boxy new buildings. While the area's architectural merits might be up for debate, the coldness that Campbell wrote of also speaks to the difficulty of building an urban neighborhood from scratch.

His review noted one bright spot, however: District Hall, a single-story, 12,000-square-foot building with big windows and a funky slanted roof. In the words of its 27-year-old general manager, Nicole Fichera, it is meant to serve as the Innovation District's "living room."

The angular, metal-panel-clad building was the first in the new Seaport Square development, part of the Innovation District. (Gustav Hoiland/Flagship Photo)

District Hall began with Menino (who died in October) calling for an "innovation center," a nebulous concept that a design team working for Boston Global Investors, developers of 23 acres of the new district, was forced to figure out on its own. Fichera, who trained as an architect and has been involved with the Innovation District since she was a co-op student at Northeastern University, was in those early meetings.

"It was intoxicating to be part of something so big," she says. "But it was a confusing process. The mayor's office wanted a gathering space for the innovation economy, and that could be 100 million things. We had to figure out what the space would be, imagine everything that would take place here. We did these brainstorming sessions, like, 'What the heck is this?'"

What the designers at the Boson firm of Hacin + Associates eventually came up with is something like a college campus's student union. Open 7 AM to 2 AM on weekdays and from noon on weekends, District Hall was built with private funds and is run by a local non-profit called the Venture Café Foundation. It houses a restaurant, a coffee shop and bar, a public lounge with tables and armchairs, and a set of leasable conference and event rooms. The walls are all writeable, and the Wi-Fi is strong and speedy.

It's a place where a start-up founder can meet with potential investors, where office workers can bring their laptops for a change of scenery, and where, as people actually move here, neighbors can socialize over a beer and a plate of roasted duck tacos.

The building's student-union-like interior (Gustav Hoiland/Flagship Photo)

The building's interior was meant to be flexible, Fichera says, but when it came to the outside, the designers were very clear about the role District Hall would play in this new neighborhood. The interesting angles were meant to signal civic space, in the manner of a museum or concert hall. Sticking with a one-story layout gave the building a human scale, and it was important that District Hall be freestanding so that it would look and feel independent from the office towers going up around it.

Fichera left Hacin to take a job focusing on the Innovation District with the city's redevelopment authority in 2012, and then became District Hall's manager when it opened last year. She acknowledges that it's unusual for a designer to manage a building she helped to conceive. But after spending so much of her short career on District Hall, she found it tough to let the project go.

"I've had the chance to be here and thinking about it since it was just a concept," she says. "I remember sitting in design meetings, talking about 'What do we do here?' I could see it, and I remember thinking at the time, 'I could totally run this.'"

Nicole Fichera (Matthew Manke)

She laughs at what she says was the "arrogance" of a 22-year-old, but after spending four years on District Hall, eventually she became the right person for the job. And that meshed well with Fichera's idea that architects, if they really want to understand how people use the spaces they create, ought to stay involved after construction is complete.

In Fichera's eyes, District Hall is still an experiment, a case study in place-making that she expects will be adopted and adapted in other cities as the "innovation district" trend takes off. And whatever the verdict on the rest of the district's architecture, she is proud of her own corner of it.

"[Menino] used to talk about 'relationship architecture,'" says Fichera. "There's a lot you can do to build community regardless of the physical context. But you can also make the physical context conducive to relationships."

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