New England’s “Windy City”

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Wind near the John Hancock building, on Clarendon St., in April 1977. (Boston Globe)

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.”

How early?

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.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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8 Responses to New England’s “Windy City”

  1. Peter Van Erp says:

    40 years ago, after the Plywood palace was reclad, my parents, my fiancee and her family, and I were approaching the Hancock to go up to the public visitor’s gallery at the top. A gust of wind staggered my mother while we were crossing the street, and trying to get her footing, she tripped on the curb, and fell straight on her face. She was knocked unconscious. Someone from the building ran out, ensuring that she wasn’t on the property when she lost her footing. I’ve hated the building and its ilk since.

    Like

    • Wow. Peter, I certainly hope that your mom was not seriously or permanently hurt, though losing consciousness is plenty serious. I hope Nikos Salingaros reads your comment and adds it to his collection of reasons why modern architecture makes people ill. I will send it to him.

      Like

  2. LazyReader says:

    The “Greenest” building is one you never have to build. Ecological sustainability I despise that word because it’s used poorly. Let’s rediscuss that word and identify what it truly means. Sustainable means for biological systems to remain productive state functionally indefinitely. Nature does this by recycling virtually everything it manufactures, even it’s wastes. Mineral cycles include the carbon cycle, sulfur cycle, nitrogen cycle, water cycle, phosphorus cycle, oxygen cycle, among others that continually recycle along with other mineral nutrients into productive ecological nutrition. Every ecosystem retains a fixed amount of nutrients, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, etc. Growth of a particular organism is fed by withdrawing from the “bank” of those materials which manufacture cells to grow the organism(s). And those materials are stock piled in one of three ways, absorption (dissolving rocks and inorganic material with trace elements), decomposition (breaking down the dead organic matter to restock the materials needed for new growth) and parasitism (steal it from another organism). And it’s energy is catalyzed from the sun since nearly all biological input of complex chemistry begins with autotrophs.

    A building in downtown does none of these features.

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  3. Fascinating! I love learning about all the reasons I didn’t know I had for loving classical architecture!

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    • How about I give you one more, Deirdre, in appreciation of your delightful comment. It is that traditional architecture is so much more ecologically sustainable, with windows that open and close, walls whose greater thickness retains heat or cool in the winter or summer, and many more. In traditional architecture, buildings help nature and climate to regulate indoor comfort without using fuel or electricity. But you may already have heard that!

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  4. Steve says:

    Nicely argued, David. Boston can never be the self- anointed “hub” again and it is becoming more and more a center of dystopia. As you state, it’s rival – Providence – can gain significant ground if it 1) plans to leverage its architectural beauty and 2) raises its downtown height limits with appropriate design controls.

    Then, how could anyone living in Boston resist moving to Providence?

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    • I don’t think height limits need to be raised, Steve. The limits are already loose in places where towers should go – in downtown (and remember, I don’t agree that the 195 corridor is part of downtown!). But of course I agree with your first point.

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  5. LazyReader says:

    God Forbid architects would have to dig new tools out of their toolbox and start crafting ornament again……..For good reason, Glass and steel gave architects with no discernable drafting talent the ability to shape whatever they wanted, it was up to the engineers (another thing architects today cant do) to make their visions a reality; but also had to obey the laws of physics.

    Those that insist classical is too time consuming and expensive forget modern Technology has in a double edged sword fortunately/unfortunately eliminated most of the labor and time sensitive “Craftsmenship”. Also don’t forget Cast Iron architecture a century and a half ago allowed the replication of classical designs in mere hours of production and installation. Mass produced need not mean mass conformity.

    And cast aluminum is vastly lighter, 3 times lighter. Not to mention easier to get, you just meltdown some cans. Recycled Aggregate is a growing business. Worldwide over 25 billion tons of concrete are manufactured annually and a lot of this ends up in landfills. Cornices, Pediments, Glyphs, friezes, Columns, entablatures, acroterions are all doable with CNC style machining, spray molding and substitute materials including cutting recycled concrete pieces; that don’t require tons of imported stone. Veneer stone can now be cut to as little as 3/8 of an inch. We all remember the S*** storm when they remodeled 2 Columbus Circle, think of that……in reverse. Buildings can have their glass/concrete facades removed and refurbished with classical exteriors, no new construction needed. The hideous buildings in L’Enfant plaza in DC are ripe targets, instead of tearing down DC buildings, a cheaper strategy would be to simply re-face them

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