WGBH's New Headquarters Building

An Innovative and Surprisingly Comfortable 21st Century Communications Structure

By: - Dec 31, 2007

WGBH’s New Headquarters Building - Image 1 WGBH’s New Headquarters Building

Rarely does a building's form appropriately follow its function. Yet, sometimes a building seems to function just as it is supposed to. This is the case of the new WGBH headquarters now located in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. Before this happened, WGBH was located in often rabbit warren-like structures in the Allston neighborhood of Boston adjacent to the Harvard Business School. This setting was less than optimal for a growing communications giant that needed not only room but also the ability to share cutting edge technology among staff members.

For over five years, the administration at WGBH wrestled with how and where to consolidate the flagship public radio and television's institutional facilities. After deciding to expand their campus into Allston, Harvard University forced the issue. The 12 separate buildings that housed 'GBH were either owned by the ancient university or the land that they stood on was, and Harvard wanted the parcels back for its own expansion needs. Having to move, WGBH then embarked on building a 21st Century communications facility, and the result is pretty damn good.

WGBH is the preeminent public broadcasting entity in the United States. It operates over ten stations, primarily WGBH 2 and WGBX 44 (television), and WGBH 89.7 FM (radio). WGBH is a member of PBS in regard to its television broadcasts, and is both a member of NPR and an affiliate of PRI for its radio broadcasts. WGBH produces many shows including a third of PBS's national, prime-time productions. Programs produced for PBS include Masterpiece Theatre, Antiques Roadshow, Mystery, NOVA, Frontline, American Experience, The Victory Garden and This Old House.

Besides its major contributions to non-commercial educational television programming, WGBH is also a leader in services for people who are deaf, blind, visually or audibly-impaired. WGBH invented television closed captioning and the Descriptive Video Service (DVS). Interestingly, it provide these access services to commercial and public TV producers, to home video, to Web sites, and to movie theaters.

When drivers pass by WGBH's new Allston facility, they are greeted by a very large 30 x 45' very slow changing electronic graphic. It is a digital billboard, a living mural (as WGBH Senior Vice President of Design Chris Pullman would say). Each day, the LED image changes to visually correspond to either prominent news or timely programming. This is the major 21st Century exterior branding device of the new WGBH $85 million facility.

Former station president Henry Becton led the effort to move from inadequate space and put the senior vice president of design, Chris Pullman, in charge of creative aspects of the project. Pullman has been at WGBH for years and serves as the creative director of the station with art directors and creative managers reporting to him. According to Pullman, who graciously took me on a thorough tour of the new facility, this was a labor of great joy and love for him. Pullman chaired the development and planning of the building's program from which the architects and engineers created their design. This is certainly an elegant project that the architects, staff planners, and project managers should be very proud of.

A large building that is needed to be a flexible structure for new and changing technologies is not an easy task to accomplish well and on budget. The New York City-based architectural firm, Polshek Partners Architects, sensitively designed the building. Their work was ably  assisted by the "technical architect", Janson Design Group.  Wherever possible, interesting new, cost-effective, and green materials were used throughout the building.The main atrium connects to one television studio through soundstage doors that, when opened, allow for receptions and special events. Windows on the Guest Street side of the building look into another TV studio. On one side of the atrium is a 200 seat, state of the art, auditorium which allows for seminars, special screenings, workshops and community meetings.

On the other side, there is a fabulous, cutting edge, 1800 square foot performance studio that can handle an audience of 75. According to Pullman, this is quite a change from the small closet of a space that was previously used in Allston. The large newsroom has windows overlooking the street with ceiling graphics marking major city names and longitudes indicating correspondents' locations. WGBH works with the BBC on news-gathering. Above the television and radio studios are a series of servers that hold all of the stations digital content. An amazing archive of footage from 30,000 radio and television shows which includes early clips of Julia Child, a music lecture by Leonard Bernstein, and John Kennedy's announcement for president on a show hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt. Over the next three years, all footage will be totally digitized.

Of course, there is a generous green room for guests to prepare for performances and interviews.  Control rooms for both radio and television as well as production facilities are strategically placed in the building. On the upper floors are staff spaces with the general and support staff having access to windows and the administrators in offices without windows. This seems very democratic. The windows automatically shade themselves, or not, depending upon the outside light and weather. The top floor has one of a number of eating facilities and also an adjacent roof deck that is planted with trees and flowers. The water captured on the roof deck will moisten the plantings without the need for additional water. Solar panels on the roof will also lessen electrical costs to a degree. And, unlike the building of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, there is room for future expansion in the WGBH complex.

A few negatives about the building or rather about building details. The building is located in an urban desert with little or no green space or trees along historic Market Street at the intersection of Guest Street. For a purposeful green building, this building has very little set back from the street and therefore, very limited area for green space or trees. At several neighborhood meetings, Brighton residents have voiced disappointment at the lack of plantings and literal greening at this "gateway" to the City of Boston and the Brighton neighborhood. Perhaps, in the spring the plantings will be stronger looking?

The other area of criticism is the signage. The firms that worked on this were 2x4 and Poulin+Morris. Both are New York firms. It is not clear who did what, but the major graphic, the WGBH2 logo, on the building lacks contrast to the point that it is hard to read. This is a major environmental graphics mistake. The interior signs seem a bit overdone and have a very 80s look to them. It is doubtful that a visitor would be allowed to walk around the building without being accompanied. There is a major graphic in the newsroom of maps of the world with world time display clocks on a large dark circular centerpiece dropped from the ceiling. It too looks like an 80s graphic solution.

This said, the WGBH Headquarters Building is one of the really fine buildings erected in New England during the last several years. The scrutiny of the WGBH staff, and the expertise of the architects and engineers, have resulted in the creation of a wonderful space conducive to creativity, institutional growth and community sharing. Form here definitely follows function.

In order to be relevant during the 21st Century, communications and educational institutions must be flexible and sensitive to ever changing technologies and the marketplace. With this building, WGBH demonstrates that it not only cares about the future, but also wants to be a meaningful leader. Bravo to WGBH.