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.”
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.