Boston is the Windy City of New England partly because of its proximity to the North Atlantic but also its funnels of street gusts caused by its dreadfully metastasizing skyscrapers. Wind tunnels are raising eyebrows (and skirts) in the Hub, as evidenced by the Boston Globe story “As construction booms, Boston works to slow down wind tunnels.” It’s author, the urban theorist Anthony Flint, of the Lincoln Institute, writes:
With construction booming and several new towers planned, Boston planners have joined their counterparts from London, Toronto, and San Francisco in paying special attention to street-level wind effects around new development. That means heading off problems early in the design process and making modifications to completed projects when the conditions they help create are too blustery by far for those walking by.
Builders have had to confront all kinds of impacts over the years — shadows, glare, noise, heat effects, energy inefficiency, susceptibility to flooding, and seismic activity. Around the world, wind is now moving up the checklist.
I doubt that Bostonians faced nearly as much wind when its taller buildings were designed in classical styles. In 1973-74, when I spent a year at Emerson College, then on Back Bay’s Beacon Street, I used to walk down Beacon in the morning and felt little or no wind at cross streets that led up to Beacon from the Charles River a block away – except at Clarendon, where gusts of wind were strong enough to almost blow me into Beacon. I blamed this on one building, 180 Beacon, then the street’s only modernist tower, with the side facing Clarendon perfectly flat and blank, as I recall, with no windows or any other surface extrusions, such as ornamental embellishments, to slow the speed of any wind off the Charles. The building was replaced in 1996 with a pair of taller towers (rents ring in at $2,500-$25,000 a month), quite as ugly but with balconied fenestration facing Clarendon. I wonder if these useful obstacles to the wind have served to diminish its blast.
Nowadays, farther up Clarendon, the John Hancock Tower causes extreme wind-tunnel effects. By the spring of 1974, I lived in a third-floor walkup on Marlborough Street, and directly out my window, three blocks away, I could see the Hancock. Panes of sheer glass from its curtain wall were famously popping out and spinning down to threaten pedestrians below. All of the tower’s window openings were soon covered with plywood, and eventually new glass replaced the plywood. By now the neighborhood has more tall buildings, mostly modernist, with largely blank façades. I imagine that this “face-blasting zone,” as Flint in his Globe story calls it (or “eye-poking zone,” as I would call it), has grown only more hazardous and uncomfortable.
Wind tunnels happen because wind travels faster at higher altitudes, hitting the sides of buildings, which act like sails, and rattling down to the street. With nowhere else to go, it finally surges through gaps between buildings, down narrow streets, and around corners … .
And here Flint takes an amusing look backward:
Wind effects in urban environments have been around as long as city builders have reached for the sky. After Daniel Burnham’s 21-story Flatiron Building opened in New York City in 1902, police officers shooed away men hoping to glimpse petticoats uplifted by gusts. Twentieth-century modernism, with its unadorned surfaces from bottom to top, only exacerbated the problem.
Decades of “development” have inflicted an ever-expanding panoply of faceless towers on downtown and near Back Bay’s Prudential Tower. In the hideously ugly innovation district, buildings of tallish and bulky demeanor make for neighborhoods of equally blowhard conditions. For Bostonians, the attacking wind must rank up with the clogged roads as urban cataclysms. Recall from Flint’s story that Boston planners are paying closer attention to potential wind zones. Gee, I wonder why? “That,” he writes, “means heading off problems early in the design process.”
May I offer a modest proposal? Ornament on buildings of classical design serves more than just an aesthetic purpose. Forget modernist claims that decoration is useless. Put aside the fact that creating beauty helps generate a love that facilitates investments in building repair and maintenance. Classical features play a role that, by design, has no equivalent in modernist buildings. Sculpture and other carving on façades directs rain away from masonry walls; vertical stringcourses and horizontal quoins block rain from invading cracks between sections of exterior walls; windows set deeply into façades help keep rain from entering gaps in window frames. And of course pitched roofs direct rain toward gutters and drains. Rain is the greatest cause of problems in buildings. Ornament not only does its intended job of protecting architecture; it also retards the wind rushing down and across façades.
My modest proposal is that, rather than trying to invent new ways to prevent the wind from exacerbating the multiple, pre-existing difficulties of modern architecture, why not embrace classical and traditional architecture for new buildings in Boston, especially tall ones? The Hub could become the hub again by rethinking urban design and serving as a model for planners in the cities of America and around the world.
Forty miles southwest of Boston is Providence, whose planners have sought to merge dysfunction with ugliness in all new architecture for decades. Let her urban planners feel free to use this idea to steal a march on their rival, and to thereby draw more Bostonians to live in this beautiful city – a city that could easily have an even lovelier future rather than the dystopia that seems in prospect. If it wants to.