Reading Richardson

In all of our projects, we seek out the inherent qualities of the project site and context and strive to enhance the awareness of those qualities through our architecture. When our projects involve an existing building, our approach is no different. Rather than beginning with land topography as we would with an empty site, we consider the existing building as another type of topography. For our conversion of H.H. Richardson’s Hayden Building in Boston’s Chinatown, we interpreted the building and studied its newly defined relationship with the urban context. We made use of multiple resources to better understand the historical context of the building. A thorough analysis of the Richardson archives at Harvard University provided an insightful view into the mind of the architect. Another invaluable resource was the Stonehurst Residence in Waltham, MA which is one of only a few remaining residential projects by Richardson. We also took advantage of many of the historical societies that offered information about the building, the City of Boston, and its neighborhoods.

The research not only uncovered a bit of the Hayden Building’s eclectic past, but it also revealed Richardson’s design tactics that would ultimately serve as a precedent for our work: The Activated Edge, Sequence of Thresholds, and the Horizontal Datum.

Left: Historical photo courtesy of Historic New England | Right: Historical Sanborn Map images

Left: Historical photo courtesy of Historic New England | Right: 1814 & 1883 Historical Sanborn Map images


The Activated Edge

In his residential projects, Richardson activates the perimeter (edges) of his spaces with ancillary features, such as shelving and fireplaces. At Stonehurst, large door and window openings (voids) draw occupants closer to the building’s perimeter. The built-in seating frames the void and establishes an intimate interior space that takes full advantage of the natural lighting and views at the building’s perimeter.

Top: Diagram illustrating program at building edge; Stonehurst, Waltham MA |  Bottom: Image of 'activated edge' at Stonehurst in Waltham, MA.

Top: Diagram illustrating program at building edge; Stonehurst, Waltham MA | Bottom: Image of ‘activated edge’ at Stonehurst in Waltham, MA.


Sequence of Thresholds

A defining feature of a Richardsonian house is its sequential spaces, or thresholds, that meticulously transition the occupant from the exterior to the interior of the house. As the individual traverses deeper into the building, the outside environment becomes forgotten until it reappears in the form of another view at the building’s edge. Richardson defined the spatial thresholds with articulated framed openings and dropped ceilings that were typically located just before a change of program or direction in travel.

Top: Diagram illustrating sequential thresholds; Commonwealth Avenue Apts., Boston, MA Unbuilt  |  Bottom: Image of 'thresholds' at Stonehurst in Waltham, MA.

Top: Diagram illustrating sequential thresholds; Commonwealth Avenue Apts., Boston, MA Unbuilt | Bottom: Image of ‘thresholds’ at Stonehurst in Waltham, MA.


Horizontal Datum

Richardson’s exteriors appear stout and heavy and are punctuated with a rhythmic pattern of tiny windows. From the exterior, the solid masonry wall dominates over the ostensibly limited window openings. In contrast to the mostly solid exterior, the interior spaces feel lighter with the window openings more pronounced and accentuated. Horizontally-applied wooden wainscoting and rails along the perimeter wall further emphasize the window voids as dominant features. While primarily serving an aesthetic purpose, the horizontal wainscoting and rails provide a practical function as shelves and frame hangers that help to reinforce the building’s perimeter by bringing people to its edge.

Top: Diagram illustrating datum; Stonehurst, Waltham MA  |  Bottom: Image of 'datum' at Stonehurst in Waltham, MA.

Top: Diagram illustrating datum; Stonehurst, Waltham MA | Bottom: Image of ‘datum’ at Stonehurst in Waltham, MA.