Browbeating Boston’s brand

View toward Prudential Center and 111 Huntington Ave., with the tiara. (worldradiomap.com)

View from Christian Science Center toward Prudential Center and 111 Huntington Ave. (center left), with “tiara.” (worldradiomap.com)

Marty Walsh has taken over as Boston mayor after 20 years of Tom Menino, who used to decide what sort of hat new buildings would wear – most famously, the “tiara” of a glitzy tower called R2-D2, near the Pru. That’s how closely the late Menino was said to have micromanaged development in the Hub. Walsh, who once ran the city’s building trades union, told a business roundtable on Wednesday that “too often, new buildings have been merely functional.” He wants developers to “reach beyond their comfort zone.”

Beacon Hill. (dguides.com)

Beacon Hill. (dguides.com)

Back Bay. (content.time.com)

Back Bay. (content.time.com)

South End. (boston-discovery-guide.com)

South End. (boston-discovery-guide.com)

Financial District. (wikipedia.org)

Financial District. (wikipedia.org)

Seaport District. (bostonmagazine.com)

Seaport District. (bostonmagazine.com)

For an infinitesimally brief moment I interpreted his remarks, which I read in Boston Globe columnist Dante Ramos’s piece “Marty Walsh Goes Up Against Boring Architecture,” on Thursday, as positive. The new mayor wants beautiful buildings, not just functional ones, even if that means pushing developers to reach beyond the architectural establishment’s lazy adherence to modernist orthodoxy.

Good! But no. In fact, Walsh wants bolder modern architecture, and warned citizens groups against getting in the way. Walsh wants Boston to go all in on ugly.

“We should aim for world-class design,” he told his audience. “Our historic buildings reflect our unique past. New buildings should project the values and aspirations of our growing city. We can balance the old and new.”

Most people will think those words make good sense, but what Walsh means is that Back Bay and Beacon Hill are old hat, that Boston needs no more buildings that people love, but instead needs more modernist architecture of the type that has already shredded Boston’s brand.

What is Boston’s brand? Good question. More so than Providence but less than most other American cities, Boston has allowed its beauty to be severely eroded over the past half century by architecture that tries not to fit in. It’s as if commerce, technology and innovation won’t take root unless the buildings they occupy shock or startle. That is what innovative has come to mean. Since the nation’s most creative era of industrial development came and went long before the onset of modern architecture, that is obviously false.

Walsh is not alone in believing that creativity in architecture means adherence to the profession’s longstanding orthodoxy. Modern architecture is more than a century old. It, too, is the past. So Boston must choose between a past that offers beauty and one that offers ugliness. The functional buildings that Walsh condemns are those whose architects, stranded between the razzmatazz of their professional instincts and Menino’s resistance to it, have tried to have it both ways. Compromise in design rarely satisfies anyone.

To find the truth of the matter, one need only ask where people go in Boston. Locals and visitors alike flock to Newbury Street, Beacon Street and Faneuil Hall. Beacon Hill, Back Bay and the North End are what the world thinks when it thinks of Boston. They are Boston’s true brand.

Fortunately, the decades have been kind to Boston, generally protecting its loveliest neighborhoods. Modern architecture has mostly been directed into secondary districts unworthy of protection in the minds of the powers that be. Commonwealth Avenue above Mass. Ave. is one such sump. The areas near the Prudential Center and upper Boylston Street have failed to stave off the worst modernist brutality. The Financial District is a hodge-podge where the old and the new maintain an unpleasant standoff. Menino’s own Seaport (or “Innovation”) District is a vast cesspool of gargantuan sterility – except for the rehabbed old brick buildings that serve as apartment complexes. The South End’s extensive historic fabric has been slapped upside the head by just the sort of functional architecture Walsh protests – the inevitable result of compromise between what Menino wanted during his years and what Walsh now seems to think he wants to replace it with.

As columnist Ramos reminds us, Menino did not “invite architects to follow their muses.” Good for him. But while restraining architects’ worst impulses (that is, their “muses”), he did not push them to embrace the best practices of the past. So he left Boston with more than enough “boring” buildings. At least that’s better than what is likely to result if, as Walsh wants, architects are let off their already overlong leashes.

Great modernist architecture is rare because genius is rare, and only genius is capable of inventing truly great new shapes from the grist of their own egos. Most architects had their respect for beauty purged in architecture school; their professors failed to replace that respect with genius. Modern architecture by mediocre architects is boring at best and repulsive at worst. Traditional architecture by mediocre architects is boring at worst but can be quite attractive, because they are willing to learn from past genius.

Mayor Walsh should ask developers to hire architects confident enough in their abilities to revive the best practices of the past to move into the future. That way lies beauty without the difficult requirement of genius. Boston’s most beloved districts arose that way, and there is no reason whatsoever that new places of beauty cannot and should not arise there again.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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  4. Reblogged this on Architecture Here and There and commented:

    Adds link to Boston Globe’s story on Mayor Walsh’s architectural advice to developers.

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  5. Michael J. Tyrrell says:

    I see three problems: developer exclusivity at one end, Design by Committee at the other and a planning authority subsumed by politics in between. What’s missing is an authentic Building Culture that confers confidence in the designer so little or no oversight is necessary. Building cultures don’t surrender to unions and manufacturers; to things modular and pre-milled. Building cultures don’t need Landmark Commissions to quell the effects of greed and poor taste. To his credit, Mayor Walsh demands better quality, but to the Globe, only “signature” buildings can achieve that goal(?)… Some of Boston’s best architecture is not “unique”, but rather ubiquitous stuff. Ironic, then, to recall the bemoaning of post-modernist brick some twenty years ago, when designers seemed resigned to it until they revolted; claiming that Boston Architcture was more than homage to lovely bow-front townhomes, and the Hallowed Halls of Harvard. Now we’re saddled with swaths of pressed-metal Meisan wannabes…. a skyline full of junk. Without a confident building culture nothing will change.

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