Friday, February 19, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-3: A Response and a Concern

Or, by Their Fruits Shall You Know Them (Urban Design-wise, That Is...)

Last month, the Boston Globe ran two stories on the metropolitan region's mid-20th Century legacy of large-scale concrete buildings. The first was a Sunday Arts & Entertainment section piece on January 3 by Robert Campbell entitled "The beauty of concrete." The second, by Sarah Schweitzer, appeared on January 24 in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine under the headline of "In Praise of Ugly Buildings." Both articles have a kind of "man-bites-dog" quality to them. (I mean, who thinks concrete buildings are beautiful, or that ugly buildings deserve praise?) Indeed, both articles posit that, despite the generally negative view that most people have of Boston's mid-20th Century concrete buildings, given their age, their relative level of endangerment, and the advent of new, relatively young cheerleaders for these buildings, the time has come to reconsider their place in the area's architectural heritage and even accept them as and for what they are. I've been pondering whether and how best to respond. Here goes:

Before getting underway, I'd like to stipulate that I'm going to cherry pick a bit by focusing on the two least-liked buildings in the bunch -- Boston City Hall at Government Center and the State Services Center on the superblock bounded by Staniford, Merrimack, New Chardon, and Cambridge Streets (both in the brutalist style) -- but I believe the argument I lay out here holds for other modernist buildings as well.
First of all, it is essential to understand the historical background for these two buildings to really understand what it means to defend them today and state, as is done in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine article, that "past sins must be forgiven and...the buildings...recognized for thier own history -- that of ushering Boston into the 20th century." The reference to "past sins" is a slight and somewhat opaque nod to the urban renewal-era origins of these buildings: both the State Services Center and Boston City Hall are part of the larger Government Center Urban Renewal Area that condemned and razed Scollay Square in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Scollay Square was, at the time, much past its prime and serving as the city's main red light district. In other words, a rather inviting target for urban renewal, at a time when the urban renewal movement was at its height and wrecking balls were swinging in many places. The most notorious urban renewal project was in the West End, where the entire neighborhood was leveled to make way for Le Corbusier-style towers in the park.

Before and After: The first photo is the pre-demolition West End in the 1950s. The second photo is the West End as it appeared in 1960.
All of this destruction and reconstruction, so the story goes, was a critical sign of the birth of the "New Boston" as the city shrugged off its decrepit, overly conservative past and reached out for a new and brighter future at mid-century. Suffice it to say, not everyone agrees with that narrative.

Fast forward to 2006, when Boston Mayor Thomas Menino first raised the possibility of moving city hall to the redeveloping South Boston Waterfront and selling off (read: demolishing) the existing Boston City Hall for private redevelopment to fund the move. The cratering of the commercial real estate market has put that initiative on hold, but the Mayor's mere suggestion was enough to galvanize the previously marginalized supporters of the city's concrete legacy. Thus, Ms. Schweitzer's article quotes extensively from a recent reappraisal from the Boston Landmarks Commission of the architectural value of several of Boston's major modernist concrete buildings, including not only Boston City Hall and the State Services Center but the JFK Federal Building (also at Government Center), 133 Federal Street (which was targeted a couple of years ago for a new ultra-high rise), and the St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street as well. It appears, based on the article's quotations from the study, that the BLC may be considering landmarking some or all of these buildings. They are said to be "architectural treasures" that have been affected over the years by the public's "widespread lack of understanding, appreciation, and context for buildings of this period." Those presumably really in the know -- the president of the New England chapter of DOCODOMO (an international organization based in Barcelona and devoted to the preservation of modernist architecture), two architects who co-curated an exhibit on Boston's mid-20th century buildings at the pinkcomma gallery in the South End, and a professor of architecture at Boston University -- are then quoted by Ms. Schweizer asserting that "[t]o just say they are ugly is a cop-out" and declaring them "large-scale works of public sculpture."

Sorry, but saying these buildings are ugly is not a cop-out, it's merely stating the truth. And to call them "large-scale works of public sculpture" is the most revealing statement made in either article. It is a peculiarly modernist idea that buildings should be conceived principally as massive art installations as opposed to, say, parts of the city's urban fabric. This orientation largely explains why modernist buildings such as these are almost uniformly unsuccessful when built in urban settings. They are generally intended to be viewed in isolation as art objects, even if they aren't actually so located and even, unlike, say a Jackson Pollock painting, where people are forced to do more than just look at them in a gallery, but actually have to live, work with, and pass by them on a regular basis. As they say in the computer programming world, the fact that these buildings look out of place is a feature, not a bug.

So, like most of the general public, I do not like either the State Services Center or Boston City Hall. All of the foregoing said, though, I am not terribly interested in their specific architectural stylings, how ugly they are, or even how they look on the skyline. Rather, my main concern is how they interact at ground level with people, adjacent streets, and their surrounding built environment.

"By their [urban design] fruits shall you know them."
Viewed through this lens, we have got some bad fruit, people. The State Services Center and Boston City Hall represent acutely impaired parts of the urban fabric that cry out for substantial improvement. To demonstrate what I mean, herewith photos showing both buildings from angles that were not shown in the Globe articles:

First, two photos from the Congress Street frontage of Boston City Hall, the first showing the massive bunker-like brick wall that turns a complete blind face to the street and Dock Square, the Samuel Adams statue, and Faneuil Hall across the way, and the second showing the blocked-off stairway shown in side view in the first photo. The third photo is of the side of the building that faces across the narrow part of City Hall Plaza toward the low-rise portion of the JFK Federal Building.

In order, a section of the Merrimack Street frontage, the pulled-back corner at Merrimack and Staniford Street (fenced off and occupied by parked cars), and the completely door-less facade on Cambridge Street.

This is where the prospect of the BLC possibly landmarking these buildings goes from merely interesting to take on aspects of potentially genuine tragedy. From an urban fabric/urban design standpoint, it is hard to find two more hostile, more badly-behaved buildings in Boston. They are in desperate need of serious, thorough intervention that will open their dull, alienating frontages up to the life of the street and the city they, for better or worse, inhabit. Before the BLC landmarks these buildings, consideration needs to be given to how much more difficult their badly-needed retrofit will become after that occurs.
Ultimately, then, by all means, argue the relative merits of these buildings, their styles and their place in the architectural history of the city. And maintain, preserve, and even systematically improve these buildings' performance. From a sustainability perspective, their replacement would require much more energy than their revitalization -- arguing strongly for leaving them where they are. But let's be careful before we unintentionally saddle ourselves with obviously dead streetscapes and torn urban fabric for too many more generations.
[RTUF Note: This entry has been revised since its original posting.]

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Blog Post No. 2010-2: 45 Province Helps Re-Civilize Its Block

Dignifying a historical echo while losing a bit of local color

Location: 45 Province Street, Boston, MA

Year of Urban Fabric Restoration: 2009
Photos: Taking a walk around the block, starting at the corner of School Street and Province Street, then up School, left into Chapman Place to the rear alley behind the new building, around the corner onto Bosworth Street, down the Province House steps, and finally around the front of the building, stopping for a second at the former site of the Littlest Bar (the small, multi-paned facade at ground level with the red trim).

The Story: Where to start with this patch of Boston? I think I'll start with an excerpt from the treatment that Campbell and Vanderwarker gave to Province Court, the alley on the opposite side of Province Street, in Cityscapes of Boston (pages 158 and 159). [RTUF NOTE: Photo taken from the same vantage point in 2010 has been added as the last photo above. - ML] There, Robert said of the multi-storied garage that occupied this site from the mid-1950s until just a couple of years ago:

This car warehouse is the faceless Metropolitan Garage (1956), which may soon be demolished if a proposed redevelopment goes forward [RTUF NOTE: 45 Province is that ultimate redevelopment, some 17 years after Campbell wrote in 1992.] Regardless of whether it lives or dies, the Metropolitan's lesson is clear. Garages in the city are useful, but they shouldn't be allowed to kill the life of the street by occupying, as this one does, large areas along the sidewalk. Walking past so much dead frontage is like crossing a no man's land. It is empty, risky, and dull. Garages on commercial streets should be tucked out of sight beneath, above, or behind a continuous sidewalk frontage of other uses with interesting windows and doors, the architectural metaphors of human presence. Garages should also be designed with flat floors and enough ceiling room to enable them to be convertible -- like other buildings -- to different uses in the future.

Robert was right in so many different ways about that building. It was ugly, remarkably tall for a building used solely for a garage, and dead to the street in an aggressive, zombie-like way. Enough buildings like this, and you can kill even a city as tightly-knit as Boston. Despite its flat floors, it was not reused. Instead, it was totally demolished to make way for the building seen in the photos that I took this last week.

Even if you're not enitrely comfortable with the height of the new building (I personally am comfortable with the height, being, as I have stated in a prior post, from New York), it is a vast improvement over the former garage and parking lot that used to occupy this location. The residential condominiums rise above ground floor retail, a residential lobby announced by an expansive curving glass canopy, and off-street parking access/egress that is shielded for the most part by strategic landscaping and column placement. Following Robert Campbell's dictum, all of the building's 290+ parking spaces are located below grade beneath the building. One of the retail spaces appears to be reserved for a restaurant, with a side terrace (seen in the third photo, above) that looks like it will be a good place to perch come springtime. I especially like the careful treatment of Chapman Place at the rear of the building (cobblestones and granite curbing along the full length), how the building's main volumes are varied just enough to avoid a canyon effect, and the way the building fills in the entire block. All in all, 45 Province gives the surrounding streets a series of strong edges to work with.

Now for the historic echo and the lost piece of local color. The historic echo is the staircase leading up from the sidewalk on Province Street to the level of Bosworth Street above. This staircase is all that is left of the Province House, a mansion built by a wealthy Boston merchant in the 17th century that was made the official residence of the royal governors of the Massachusetts Province starting in 1716. After the Revolution, the Commonwealth found little use for the building once the seat of state government moved from what is now the Old State House to the Charles Bulfinch-designed (new) State House on Beacon Hill. So, in 1811 the structure was conveyed to the fledgling Massachusetts General Hospital as part of its endowment. After a century of income-generating commercial use for the hospital, the site was sold and the building was then demolished by the new owners in 1922. A plaque commemorating the location's rich history is located to the left of the base of the stairs. I think it fair to say that 45 Province re-civilizes this location -- an interesting concept considering it is located in the historic heart of a historic city, yet still true considering the garage structure it replaced.

We also now have another echo with the vestigial facade of the former Littlest Bar. Michael Levenson's Boston Globe piece lamenting the pub's demise can be read here. In summary, the pub was open for about 60 years, from the end of the Second World War until construction started on 45 Province a few years ago. It truly was the kind of place, as Levenson says, where half a dozen patrons could make it feel crowded. The Littlest did survive in altered form, relocating a few blocks away to Broad Street in a larger, ground-level space that just can't match what it had here. I don't challenge the notion that a strong piece of local color was lost here. But the city gained back a more extensive and functioning urban street frontage, and that has a value of its own.

RTUF Sketch of the Restored Urban Fabric: To say that this building neatly fills in a tear in the urban fabric that was crying out for restoration is an understatement. It does what was needed in this part of town.

RTUF NOTE: This post was modified after its initial publication to correct certain errors, improve readability, and add the photo of Providence Court. -- ML