Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-5: Urban design roundup -- Reclaiming the Esplanade (and its broader implications) and Exploring the urban design-public health nexus

In yet another installment of our continuing series of commentaries on commentaries in the media ("They report it, we give it the once-over..."), your friends at RTUF offer the following:

1. Paul McMorrow in today's Boston Globe: A chance to reclaim the Esplanade. Taking the opportunity presented by the non-profit Esplanade Association's recent release of "Esplanade 2020" (their long-range planning proposal for reinvigorating the Boston shore of the Charles River Basin), McMorrow speaks emphatically to the need to roll back some of the more stunningly bad public infrastructure decisions of the last half century, especially the transmogrification of Storrow Drive from a simple park road into an interstate wanna-be and the blight that is the Bowker Overpass connecting Storrow to the Fenway, which casts a critical part of the Commonwealth Avenue mall and the mouth of the Muddy River into perpetual shadow. The piece is well worth a read. Bottom line: knowing what we know today, we have to seize every chance we are offered to reconstruct and renovate our infrastructure in a way that supoprts, instead of degrades, the urban fabric. Get out there, and get to it.

2. Jane Brody in the New York Times over the last three weeks, starting with: Communities learn the good life can be a killer. Wth her typical combination of seeing the problem broadly, researching it carefully, and then making it personal, Ms. Brody walks through the personal/public health aspects of some of the very issues we here at RTUF have been highlighting in this first installment, and then the subsequent pieces Making city streets safer and Advice from a 70 year-old cyclist. There is undeniably a link between how we organize, deign, and construct our built environment and public health. In a sense, automobile-oriented suburban development was a massive national experiment on the health effects of removing virtually every opportunity for incidential physical activity from our lives. And the results of the experiment are not promising, especially (though by no means exclusively) increased obesity rates and elevated risk factors for the suite of diseases  that come with it. Successfully and convincinlgy linking a public policy issue to public and personal health has proven to be a winning strategy on many issues. On this basis, the prospects for moving the needle even further in the urban design conversation seem to keep getting better. I haven't caught it yet, but the PBS documentary on "Designing Healthy Communities" looks like it'll be well worth watching. RTUF Note: In the interest of full disclosure, readers should be aware that I spent 11 years of my life living a few doors up the street from Ms. Brody, her husband Richard Enguist, and her twin boys Erik and Lorin, in Brooklyn.

3. RTUF Milestone Announcement: We surpassed 5,000 visitors earlier today. Many thanks to RTUF Nation for visiting from time to time and, even, when the mood hits you, commenting.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-4: More about Boston City Hall and the meaning of civic architecture

RTUF Nation knows that we've blogged more than once about Government Center, City Hall Plaza and the edifice that is Boston City Hall here at the little blog that could. Mostly, we've talked about how gainfully using the windswept plaza that replaced tightly-knit though unquestionably seedy Scollay Square has been a problem that the city has grappled with since the day the last brick in the plaza was put down. And now, even as the decades-long effort has taken on new and different forms and finally begins to show some promise, we have yet another defense of Boston City Hall itself, the heart of the problem or the solution, depending on your perspective. This time it's Leon Neyfakh in, where else, The Boston Globe, writing about the building's genesis 50 years ago: How Boston City Hall Was Born. The basic argument in the piece is that the 1962 design competition for the new building and its subsequent construction was, at some level, the precipitating event that announced the New Boston and signaled the end of the old:

Whatever else you might think about it, Boston City Hall is an improbable building. Call it a giant concrete harmonica or a bold architectural achievement, but to walk by this strange, asymmetrical structure in Government Center is to wonder how on earth it landed there.

Boston City Hall has come in for significant criticism over the years. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has proposed selling it and investing in a more conventional headquarters. But the truly remarkable fact is that it was built in the first place. Experimental architecture, after all, is something we expect from museums and universities, not municipal governments. Take a look at other cities — Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles — and you’ll find city halls adorned with columns and arches, domes and porticos. Some are made of marble. Some have giant clocks. Then there’s ours, which looks like a fossilized spaceship.

Yet it wasn’t aliens who brought it here. Surprisingly, it was a group of Boston politicians and businessmen, along with two young architects named Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, who conceived of the building as a dramatic gesture intended to help usher in a new era in Boston history. This year marks the 50th anniversary of a decisive moment in that campaign: namely, an unusual design competition mounted by Mayor John F. Collins, in which architects were invited to imagine a brand-new, forward-looking home for Boston’s city government.

Boston was a very different place then. Until the 1950s, it had been a city “dying on the vine,” as US News & World Report put it, and the situation had improved only marginally when Collins took office in 1960. Economically stagnant, notoriously in thrall to political corruption, the city had seen little development for decades. As business owners decamped and residents fled to the suburbs, a fear took hold that Boston would soon be hollowed out for good.

It was in this context that the city decided to demolish the neighborhood known as Scollay Square and build in its place what would come to be called Government Center. Forceful and bewildering, Kallmann and McKinnell’s Boston City Hall would be the centerpiece of this controversial plan to revitalize Boston’s economy and convince its citizens — and the world — that the city was changing.

When the winning design was unveiled in the spring of 1962, “It sent a signal that the city was taking itself seriously,” said Keith Morgan, an architectural historian at Boston University. “That the city wanted to be something better than it had been.”

In other words, Boston was on a losing streak and needed to get its mojo back, and the new City Hall was just the object building needed to make it happen. Let's test that theory out a bit, shall we?

Virtually every city in the Northeast and the Rust Belt had to endure the same anti-urban orgy of disinvestment and victim-blaming in the first quarter century after the Second World War. So, in a sense, all of those places were in the same fix, trying to show that they were still viable or, at the very least, weren't going to go down without a fight. There was a need for a new New York, a new Philadelphia and a new Baltimore as much as there was for a New Boston.

Clearly, some cities did better than others in reinventing themselves, and Boston has to stand as one of the great urban success stories of the second half of the 20th century. Neyfakh's article would have us believe that this is due, perhaps principally, to the message sent out by the City Hall design competition and the design jury's politics-free selection of the design proposed by Kallman, McKinnell, and Knowles. The city was demonstrably leaving its past behind and striking out in a different direction. While one can't deny that City Hall and Government Center in general are radical departures from what had been the norm and had to have had a kind of "Did Boston really do that?" effect, we might want to consider instead the city's built-in advantages in the post-industrial American economy, especially the role played by its world class universities and hospitals, which ensured that it would play a major role in the high-tech and bio-tech booms of the last forty years. So, put me in the camp of not being convinced that coincidence is causality in this case. If the region's central core didn't have the Mass General, the Longwood Medical Area institutions, Harvard, and MIT, and all of the supporting institutions and infrastructure in between, I'm not sure that clearing the downtrodden heart of the city and building a modernist monument would have really made much difference. Similarly, I don't know that a renovated, instead of annihilated Scollay Square couldn't have been the heart of the New Boston in much the same way that Times Square is now the restored heart of New York, even though it has much the same physical layout and feel as it did 50 years ago. So, maybe the question is, did Boston really have to tear down some its best, while admittedly ragged, urban fabric and replace it with a buidling that is clearly more interesting as a piece of sculpture and a disastrously failed plaza in order to show that it "wanted to be something better than it had been." Dramatic, yes. Wise? Not so much.

Maybe, in defense of the City's public officials who had to deal with the world as it was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, not as we wish it might have been from a vantage point 50 years down the road, there wasn't any other way to make an architectural statement than to go for full-throttle modernist brutalism and hire Le Corbusier disciples. I get that. But it doesn't change the sub-optimal urban fabric that we still have on our hands and it also doesn't change the tragically apt observation of Ada Louise Huxtable, cited in Neyfakh's article, regarding "the architectural gap, or abyss, as it exists between those who design and those who use the 20th century’s buildings." However the building came to be and whatever its intention may have been, there remains a massive difference of opinion and considered judgment about Boston City Hall between most of us here in the real world, and the insular world of architectural crticism. To the former group, the building remains an inefficient and alienating place that we sometimes have to enter when we deal with the City. Rather than admit the building's many manifest faults, the latter group continues to defend even its worst features and the unwelcoming urban environment that results as simply something that the rest of us just don't understand. Fifty years on, you can't argue that this is a knee-jerk reaction in the heat of the moment or that the general public is simply resistant to change in whatever form, regardless how beneficial. If you can't get people to love your building 50 years after it was built, maybe there really is something amiss with what you designed, no matter how monumental.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Blog Post No. 2012-3: Kevin White's passing...

...points to a shocking factoid from Boston's urban fabric past

Kevin H. White, Mayor of Boston from 1968 to 1984, died a week ago last Friday. For the old towne, it was a really big deal. Not only was Kevin White a four-term Mayor (which I believe was the record until Tom Menino's election in 2009 to a fifth term, which he is currently enjoying), those 16 years when he was mayor constitute the fulcrum on which the city's recent history pivoted.

Old Boston was the city before Kevin White.The New Boston is what we've had since. From a societal perspective, court-ordered busing of public school students to remedy past de facto segregation was the big game-changing event. It resulted in riots across Boston on a close to daily basis in the mid-1970s that made national news. By all accounts, busing hit the mayor and the city he ran like a ton of bricks. From a physical and built environment perspective, White's 16 years were equally critical. Many of the landmarks of today's central Boston took shape and/or assumed their current forms during White's mayoralty. Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market is probably the best known, but there are many others.
One pair of projects that I did know about (and which has even appeared in one of this weblog's prior entries (see Blog Post 2009-7)), but whose significance I hadn't quite understood until now, was the Four Seasons Hotel and Heritage on the Garden -- effectively occupying two full blocks on the section of Boylston Street directly across from the Public Garden. The projects were planned toward the end of White's tenure and completed in the mid-late 1980s under the aegis of the Park Plaza Urban Renewal Plan. While both buildings are of red brick, the Four Seasons is a somewhat modernist take on the idea, while Heritage on the Common is more historicist in its treatment of the context.

Four Seasons Hotel, 200 Boylston Street, Boston, MA
Photo Credit: startle.com

300 Boylston Street (a.k.a, Heritage on the Garden) - 300 Boylston Street, Boston, MA
Photo Credit: Heritage on the Garden.

But what is truly interesting about the project, at least to me and at least now, is what it replaced. I hadn't quite realized what it replaced until Brian McGrory wrote an excellent piece about Kevin White's legacy in the Boston Globe last week -- The Loner and the City He Loved. Here's how McGrory opened his piece:

It’s virtually impossible to imagine that the rarefied streets of the Back Bay were ever home to flophouses, or to grasp that outsiders ventured into the South End at their own risk after dark, or to realize that a McDonald’s, a gas station, and a lounge called the Hillbilly Ranch ever fronted the Public Garden in the space where the Four Seasons Hotel and the Heritage now proudly stand.

This is how it was when Kevin White arrived to the Boston mayoralty in 1968. Sixteen always fascinating, often tumultuous, and invariably controversial years later, he left behind a city that was profoundly and permanently changed.

Read that first paragraph again. Fronting the Public Garden in the era just before the Four Seasons and Heritage on the Garden were built: a McDonald's, a gas station, and the Hillbilly Lounge? Really? How was that even possible? Even granting that the Hillbilly Lounge seems to have had a level of character and authenticity as well as irony (hillbillies in Boston?) that is virtually irreplaceable, on what planet would a city with the civic pride of Boston allow a block with the symbolic importance of Boylston Street between Charles and Arlington to become the equivalent of a section of suburban arterial? If you are searching for a metaphor for the profoundly anti-urban quarter century that followed the Second World War in this country, you could do worse. Boston Common and the Public Garden are critical image-making public spaces, but their huge combined importance can make you forget how small they really are, the Public Garden in particular. It's just four blocks long by two blocks wide. There is simply no space to waste. That Kevin White presided over a city that healed that particular piece of espeically egregious urban fabric violation in such an enduring and permanent-feeling way is to his profound credit. Right place, right time, right guy.

RTUF Note: This post was revised after its initial posting to reverse the order of the photos and to improve readability. - MJL.