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.]

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