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Is Boston's obsession with history stifling new architecture, making it timid, dull, and sometimes downright ugly?

By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent, January 10, 2003

Bostonians are die-hard conservatives when it comes to architecture. That seems to be the unanimous view. For an outsider's opinion I call Martin Pedersen, the managing editor of Metropolis magazine in New York. Pedersen speaks carefully: "The perception is that Bostonians are a little bit hidebound by their history."

Do locals agree? Believe it.

Hear Bill Mitchell, dean of the school of architecture and planning at MIT: "Too much recent Boston architecture has been timid and dull."

Or Brian Healy, a 40-something architect who's won national awards and is president-elect of the Boston Society of Architects: "The general public, they're in this part of the country that was part of the Revolution to start a new way of thinking about things, and they're still locked in a desire for Colonial houses."

Or Nader Tehrani, a 30-something whose firm, Office dA, is also becoming nationally recognized: "Boston has been known for more or less of a reactionary position over at least the past decade or two."

There have been a few exceptions in recent decades - a few genuinely inventive major buildings. The John Hancock Tower, by Henry Cobb of I. M. Pei & Partners, an elegant glass shaft that is famous among architects around the world. The Virgin Megastore building at Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue, a bold renovation by Frank Gehry. The Brooke Courthouse on New Chardon Street, by Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood. Not many. The score isn't high. And the many practical problems of a building like the Hancock, with its windy plaza and falling glass, probably did more harm than good to the cause of innovation. When Cobb came to do a second major building in Boston, the Moakley Federal Courthouse on the South Boston waterfront, he knew his constituency and used a lot of red brick and arches.

There are plenty of smaller gems if you know where to look, but when you take the Boston skyline as a whole, it's depressing. There was a whole generation of dumb boxes that look like the upended packing crates the real buildings were shipped in. After that came a generation of jokey so-called Post-Modernist buildings, such as International Place, by architect Philip Johnson, which is gift-wrapped in a skin of paste-on Palladian windows. Tired wit replaced genuine innovation. Johnson wasn't even trying. To be fair, it didn't happen only in Boston. Most American cities went through the same phases. But a place like Los Angeles spawned a lot more invention than Boston. Maybe that's because there's no context there. Designers feel more free from constraint. LA is the exception, though. Compared with places like Europe and Asia, we in the United States are a timid culture architecturally.

More and more, we please ourselves by copying the past. Take a walk through an older neighborhood like the South End. You'll see brand-new buildings with red-brick walls and sloping mansard roofs. Such buildings are deliberate imitations of the architecture of a century and a half ago. The imitations aren't usually convincing. They've been built in a very different manner from the stuff they're copying. Those brick walls of today are merely thin veneers over steel frames. They're a kind of exterior wallpaper, and they look it. This is decor, not architecture. Call it urban stagecraft. And what's going on inside the buildings is equally different from what went on in the past. Those new mansards don't house tiny attic bedrooms for maids, as the old ones did. Today, they are mere stylistic flourishes.

Bill Mitchell again: "I don't see any cultural value at all in adding to the city more lame, red-brick and green-glass, pseudo-Georgian, don't-make-waves knockoffs of the past. And I don't see value, either, in knee-jerk preservation of mediocre older structures. Cities aren't museums."

Boston isn't conservative in other areas. We're cutting edge in science, technology, education, medicine. We're so far from being conservative in our politics that the rest of the country thinks we're a bunch of Reds. Even as consumers, we don't normally go for the old. We want cutting edge stuff in our computers, our cars, our pop music. Why not in our architecture? Well, for one thing, compared with most American cities, we're an old one. Other cities sometimes seem to consist of little but strip malls and parking lots. There's more to save in Boston. But saving old stuff is different from making new stuff look old. European cities have more history than Boston. But they're generally quite unembarrassed about adding fresh, well-designed contemporary architecture, often slipped right in among the old. And it's well to remember that when today's historic buildings were first built, they too were usually fresh and contemporary. To preserve a place, don't you have to preserve the ethic of innovation that existed when it was built? None of these are simple questions. And up to a point, being cautious about avant-garde architecture isn't necessarily a bad thing. We'll talk about that later. First, though, since everybody seems to agree that we do have the most conservative taste of any major American city, perhaps we should ask some observers why that's true. Here's what some of them suggest:

The Puritan heritage

Bill Rawn is a prominent local architect, the designer of Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood, and the hero of the Tracy Kidder book House. Rawn grew up in California, and he sees the Puritanism in Boston.

"We come out of a Puritan culture in this city," says Rawn. "And the Puritans essentially permitted music but didn't permit theater or the visual arts. So architecture suffers for that, and it may have suffered for 300 years."

Others point out that it isn't only the Puritans, and their Yankee successors, who exhibit conservative tastes. In almost all social groups in Boston, there's a traditional dislike of seeming to want to call attention to yourself by doing anything flamboyant.

Brian Healy tells of a modern house he built in Cambridge, a city not usually regarded as reactionary. "Someone who's very progressive in Cambridge, a client, when her house was about 80 percent built, she called up, she goes, '@#%$ it, Brian, you made it beautiful.' And I laughed and said, 'Well, I plead guilty.' And she goes, 'No, it's not funny. Now I stand out in the neighborhood. My house sticks out now. What am I supposed to do?' She was serious. She didn't want to stand out." Healy says the call made him so depressed he's never been able to go and look at the finished house.

Healy thinks that kind of taste is a class thing. He recently won a competition to design affordable housing in Chicago. "Ms. Beverly, who's the matriarch of the community, she told me, 'We took buses up there and looked at the models, and we all said, "Vote for number seven. Vote for number seven." I asked her why, and she said, 'We want the new stuff, too.' In her world, modern architecture holds out the promise of renewal. She was tired of getting the recycled old stuff."

The poor want change. Those who are better off, perhaps, want architecture to reassure them of the stability of their world. They may even ask it to offer false roots, as if living in an old-looking house proves you come from an old family.

The public process

John Neal is a realtor in the South End and a member of the South End Historical Commission. He blames bureaucracy.

"I think that the approval process has a deadening effect on creativity in Boston," says Neal. "The process developers have to go through is one of the main reasons architects tend to be less innovative. The clients are afraid to ask for innovation, knowing they might end up spending a lot of money and then get their design shot down by the various layers of agencies in Boston."

Joan Goody, herself a leading Boston architect, chairs one of those layers, the Boston Civic Design Commission. She disagrees. She thinks her process doesn't dampen innovation but instead rewards it.

"If they think a brick skirt on a building is the way to win our hearts, they're wrong," says Goody. "We want buildings to be appropriate to their location, but that doesn't mean imitating what's already there. We love to see innovative work. We tried desperately to get Fidelity to do more adventurous work for their development out in the Seaport area."

Goody cites the Nike building on Newbury Street, by architects Childs Bertman Tseckares, as an example of something that fits into its context while remaining alive and inventive. "I do think probably in the real estate community, there's this feeling that if you do it in red brick, people will approve it more quickly," she admits. Then she adds: "I think Boston does have a tradition, and I'd be the first one to say that if you're not a gifted architect, it may be safer to stick with traditional materials and stay closer to traditional proportions and forms."

Public agencies aren't the only ones involved in Boston's tortuous approval process. Volunteer advocacy groups are just as important. They often take a stand against anything seen as modern or innovative. And they tend to be more powerful and active in the Boston area than elsewhere. Perhaps that's because so many Bostonians have a university education and the argumentative skills that go with it.

Cambridge neighbors, for example, recently shot down a proposal by Harvard to build an art museum on a Memorial Drive site. The museum was designed by one of the world's half-dozen best architects, Renzo Piano of Italy, a winner of the Pritzker Prize. The public agency that was involved, the Cambridge Historical Commission, very much wanted to see the museum built. Says the commission's director, Charles Sullivan: "If you're going to build in the present, you want to design in the present. You can do that in a way that shows respect to the context." Piano's design was for a low, quiet modern building surrounded by trees. It was modest and deferential in every way. Pedestrians would have been able to walk through the site to the river.

Why were neighbors opposed? In this case, the reason may have been largely political. Harvard and other institutions are often perceived as arrogant toward their surrounding neighborhoods. The Piano building was a case of payback time. It's a shame. The Boston area lost a potentially great contemporary building that would have been gentle on its site and kind to its neighbors. Harvard now talks of building housing instead, a more private use that will offer less to the neighborhood.

Do citizens' groups attract a membership of tin-pot dictator personalities, who should stop agitating and get a life? That claim is sometimes made. John Neal is more polite. "I think the people who get into these groups tend to be people who are willing to go to lots of meetings. You end up with a fairly small core group of people. The kind of people who tend to show up tend to be people who are more likely to be opposed to a project, because people who like a project are less motivated to show up. I think that's just human nature."

In other words, people who are willing to sit in church basements at night drinking stale coffee out of Styrofoam cups have a disproportionate influence on what gets built. And that influence is likely to be negative.

Complacent architects

"You have to blame the architects, too," says Brian Healy. "For being so timid. Most architects I know express some passion for innovation. But they don't really live that way. They're far too complacent about giving people what they want. And while I generally agree that people should get what they want, I do think most of the clients I've had are sophisticated and interested and want to engage in some discussion about what architecture could be. I think the profession has done a very poor job of outlining why design is critical to us as a society, and not just critical to the architectural profession as a business plan. It seems to me that's where the architects have failed miserably." He blames, too, the private lingo that architects sometimes speak. "It's sort of an elitist thing, like 'We know better than you.' "

The hero architects and their aftermath

Everyone you talk to agrees on one thing: Today's conservatism is a direct reaction against the kind of architecture we got the last time Boston tried to be cutting edge. From the 1950s into the 1970s, nobody in Boston was afraid of innovative architecture. Walter Gropius, former head of the Bauhaus school in Germany, trained a generation of modernist architects at Harvard. Government urban renewal programs led to the demolition of entire neighborhoods and their replacement by what were, at the time, regarded as utopian modern communities. Thus the old West End disappeared, replaced by Charles River Park with its high-rises in parklike settings.

Avant-garde architects in those days were heroes and were given free rein. Paul Rudolph, chairman at the time of the Yale School of Architecture, designed the State Services Center on Cambridge Street in 1974, a dramatic pile of deliberately roughened gray concrete in an architectural style known as Brutalism. Today it is possibly Boston's least loved building. An architectural competition brought us Boston City Hall in 1968, by architects Kallmann and McKinnell, a powerful but intimidating structure on a wasteland of a plaza. Featureless towers and dismal plazas replaced much of the humane and intricate streetscape of the city's downtown. It wasn't Boston's best era for architecture.

"We all know that there were some monsters of the '50s, '60s, and '70s under the heading of 'modern,' " says Joan Goody. "And so 'modern' has a bad name. If you look for examples of successful contemporary buildings that appeal to everybody, they're few and far between."

The current unpopularity of the buildings of the Age of Heroes has led, today, to a suspicion of big-name architects, at least among commercial clients and the general public. Only Boston's museums and universities are hiring name designers today. Pritzker Prize winners Norman Foster, Rafael Moneo, Frank Gehry, Kevin Roche, and Fumihiko Maki are all at work in the Boston area, but only for institutions. The same is true of younger stars like New Yorkers Diller + Scofidio, who are doing the new Institute for Contemporary Art, and Stephen Holl, designer of the new Simmons dorm at MIT. When big-name architects range out of the safety of the institutions and into people's neighborhoods, they tend to get shot down. Piano's museum is one example. Another Pritzker winner, the Austrian Hans Hollein, was hired by Harvard to do a small office building in Harvard Square, in a deliberate experiment by university planners to break through the taste barrier with an avant-garde building. It was rejected by the Cambridge Historical Commission.

The architectural stars can be viewed in two different ways. They can be seen as great talents and sources of invention, which they sometimes are. But they can also be seen, like other kinds of stars, as being largely the product of the media and their hunger for novelty, for personality, and for "signature" brand names. A deeply rooted suspicion of brand-name architecture is another source of Boston's conservatism.

How does it feel, one may ask, to be a younger architect in Boston in this situation? Boston is chock-full of talented young architects who spill out of its several schools of design. In school, you're encouraged to try new ideas. But then you have to try to make a career in the face of two obstacles. There's Boston conservatism on the one hand. On the other hand is the star system, in which the few clients who are willing to experiment turn away from local architects and instead hire the international brand names.

Tim Love is 40 and just in the process of starting his own firm, which he calls Utile (pronounced you-teel). He thinks the stars sometimes make up their designs on airplanes on the spur of the moment. "The designs are interchangeable, they have nothing to do with the program or the place. I think to be an architect like that you have to be in a media center where you're getting attention doing that kind of thing, which is why those architects are in LA or New York. You need the media outlet to disseminate your vision around the world very quickly. It's this idea of the branded building. I think such buildings are conceived in a vacuum, mostly for their media appeal by being photogenic."

Love goes on: "I think that Boston isn't the right culture for that kind of architecture. I think it's going to be more the kind of architecture that is very inventive and contemporary but is born out of the particular contextual conditions of the project." Architecture, in short, that responds to its social and physical context, but without catering to sentimental old-fashioned tastes for their own sake.

Nader Tehrani is hopeful. "We're beginning to see some signs of life here and there all around us," he says. "Some of us kids in our own little way - which is completely different from the more established firms - are trying to chisel away at what kind of innovation can happen from the grass-roots level. I know there's only a few of us, and I know that we're having a smaller cultural impact because we don't have access to significant commissions, but certainly Monica [his partner Monica Ponce de Leon] and I are still struggling and trying to do something." He mentions half a dozen other young architects he thinks of as peers - Brian Healy, Scott Cohen, Nick Winton and Alex Anmahian, Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich. "Maybe - I don't know - maybe it's part of a larger cultural thing in the air, but there is some innovation being pushed around." His firm's best-known work in Boston, the restaurant Mantra in the Ladder District, is an example.

Architecture is about actual buildings, not ideas on paper. Let's take three buildings as case studies. All of them happen to have Harvard connections, but that's a coincidence. They reveal a lot about different ways of thinking about innovation.

Peabody Terrace

This building was the subject of the first article I wrote as the Globe's architecture critic. I'd gone to a party in the Cambridge neighborhood of Riverside and heard someone saying, "It's a great little neighborhood, except that Harvard built these three ugly concrete towers."

The three towers had already existed, by then, for some years. They are part of Peabody Terrace, a cluster of housing for Harvard married students on the Charles River at Memorial Drive. Architects loved Peabody Terrace then, and they still love it today. When it was new it won a national honor award for good design from the American Institute of Architects. Its principal designer, Josep Lluis Sert, longtime dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, later received the AIA's highest award, its Gold Medal for lifetime achievement. Yet the public hated it.

I wrote that first article about the taste gap between the general public and the subculture of architects. Nothing has changed. To this day, Peabody Terrace is admired by architects (including me, I should note) and despised by almost everyone else.

It's fascinating to try to figure out why. Sert thought of Peabody Terrace as being open and welcoming to the residential neighborhood behind it. He designed it with low buildings on the neighborhood side, so it would be in scale with the nearby wood-frame houses. Only nearer the river did it go higher, to a mid-rise 22 stories. It was split by a broad brick-paved walk on which, it was thought, people from the neighborhood could move comfortably back and forth to the banks of the Charles.

People in the neighborhood, though, don't feel that way. They see Peabody Terrace as Harvard turf, and they don't feel welcome. It's a psychological barrier, not a physical one, but a barrier nonetheless. The architecture is part of what makes it feel alien. Like other modernist architecture of its era, Peabody Terrace is a frank expression of how it's built. The concrete walls are exposed, not covered up with bricks, and there are no traditional shapes or ornaments. Architecture is a language of conventions, like any other language, and people feel more comfortable with what they recognize as familiar. You'd think that after 38 years - that's how long Peabody Terrace has been there - it would be accepted. But at a talk I gave recently at the Harvard Business School, it became clear that the future businesspersons thought Peabody Terrace was ugly. The taste gap is still with us. Modernism in Boston remains the taste of a minority.

Spangler Center, Harvard Business School

An exact opposite to Peabody Terrace is this brick-and-stucco throwback to Colonial days, which opened early in 2001. Its architect is Robert A. M. Stern, who is dean of the School of Architecture at Yale. Stern makes no bones about what he's up to. He talks about the "brand image" of Harvard. He says the brand was established by the 18th-century Georgian red-brick buildings of Harvard Yard. "Can a building promote a brand?" Stern asked at the Spangler dedication ceremony, and answered himself by saying, "The traditions of an institution become associated with its architecture."

Stern points to Harvard's so-called river houses - Lowell House, Eliot House, and the rest. Built in the early 1930s, they are just as phony Colonial as Spangler. Stern thinks they revived the Harvard brand. I once lived for three years in one of the river houses, and I find it impossible to work up any ideological anger at their retro architecture. Much as I love inventive, creative architecture, I don't think I'd be happier if Walter Gropius had come to Harvard 10 years earlier than he did and had insisted that the houses be done in modern style. I don't think anyone else would, either, including the people who rail at Boston's conservatism.

Stern's right. There's a place for conventional imagery, for a familiar, readable language of architecture. Such architecture does carry a message about continuity and tradition, if that's the message you want to send. And if you look closely at the exterior of Spangler, you see that in fact there's a lot of playful invention in the details. Stern is innovating at the edge of a tradition, although perhaps rather timidly.

Should architecture be forward-looking at all, for that matter? One of the world's distinguished architectural theorists, Kenneth Frampton of Columbia University, argues the opposite. He suggests that architecture is "an essentially anachronistic form of art, whose fundamental task is to stand against the fungibility of things and the mortality of the species." Stern, at least, might agree.

Allston Library

This new branch of the Boston Public Library tries to find a third way. It's neither avant-garde nor retro. It was designed by Boston architects Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, both of whom teach at Harvard.

Tim Love, the 40-year-old architect quoted earlier, worked on the library for Machado & Silvetti. He says: "I think that the Allston library grew out of a much more local process. We did a very extensive photo survey of the neighborhood. We were very careful about taking clues from the neighborhood context. Every two weeks, I had to go into the basement of the Catholic parish house over there and meet with six people from the community, who were the client group that were appointed there. We must have met with them 25 times. They were all very nice people. They were very dedicated.

"And the advantage of that as a process," says Love, "was that they, even though they were all laypeople, became very sophisticated about what we were trying to do, by just hearing us talk about it all the time. I think just going over there and getting to know them and spending that much time in the neighborhood had a profound effect on the building. I'm a firm believer in operating very locally to do good work. You've got to make direct tactile connections to a particular context. I think that's the way I'm going to practice."

Allston isn't a great building, but it's a very good one. And in most cases, Allston may be the way to go. It's a building that satisfies the desires of both the subculture of architects and the larger population. It remains in touch with the ordinary houses of its neighborhood, picking up their human scale and even imitating their love of multiple materials. It also remains in touch with the modernist tradition of such figures as the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, whose influence is everywhere in the building. At the same time, it deals with what is genuinely new about libraries today: that they're community centers, that they have children's rooms, that they require Internet connections, that they need parking, that they're supposed to look open and democratic, and so forth.

Allston doesn't look old. It looks fresh and new. But it doesn't seem to be turning up its nose at the older stuff around it. If architects can prove, as they've done here, that they can create fresh designs that still respect the cultural values and physical context of their neighborhoods, then and only then will reactionary Boston relax. When that happens, Bostonians will again be willing to support more innovative architecture. We certainly could use some.

We've just left a century in which avant-gardism was the measure of quality in all the arts. But it's easy to invent bizarre new shapes in architecture, especially when you're sitting at a computer. True innovation grows from deeper roots. It takes what it can from tradition, neither despising the past nor fetishizing it. In that sense, it's like good poetry, still using an old language while simultaneously reinventing it. Real innovation responds to what is genuinely new in our lives. And there's a lot that is new. We build in new ways. We live in new ways. Ozzie and Harriet families are rarer. Many of us now work where we live. The list of changes is endless. Perhaps the most important of them is the planetary issue. Architecture, like other fields of activity, must learn to place fewer demands on the earth's resources.

There's room in the world for more than one kind of architecture. Retro-loving brick-freak Bostonians should wake up to the fact that crazy and inventive can be great, too. And cutting-edge architectural fashion snobs should realize that familiar and conventional can also be OK. The key is whether the style of a building says what it should be saying and whether it's been accomplished with passion and skill. Buildings that look like paper-thin stage sets for your grandfather's lifestyle don't qualify. They look pompous and cheap. Neither, however, do avant-gardist essays in free-form sculpture that have little to do with their sites or their purposes. They look trendy and self-involved.

Life is multiple and various. So should architecture be. Nobody ever said it better than the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: "An empty pageant; a stage play; flocks of sheep, herds of cattle; a brawl of spearmen; a bone flung among a pack of dogs; a crumb tossed into a pond of fish; ants loaded and laboring; mice, scared and scampering; puppets, jerking on their strings - that is life. In the midst of it all you must take your stand, good-temperedly and without disdain."

The Alfred A. Taubman Building
Everything went wrong with this building at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The facade resembles a sample board of vaguely Colonial motifs that look pasted on in the hope of making the building fit in to its Harvard University context. (Photograph / Steve Rosenthal)

The Moakley Federal Courthouse
Was this really designed by the architect of the daring Hancock Tower? It's timid. The streetside exterior is blanketed in too much red brick, patterned with round arches, in a shy gesture toward the past.(Photograph / Peter Vanderwarker)

28 State Street and 60 State Street
In the 1960s and '70s, Boston's downtown towers looked like the packing crates the real buildings came in. Here two bland examples, made of pinkish stone in a failed effort to look Bostonian, overwhelm the Old State House.(Photograph / Gorchev & Gorchev)

99 High Street
This grim, even intimidating, building (formerly the Bank of Boston, completed in 1971) and ones like it are largely to blame for today's conservatism. Boston taste is still in a state of reaction against the architecture of this generation.(Photograph / Peter Vanderwarker)

Renzo Piano museum
Conservatism can be lethal to wonderful designs. A proposed Harvard art museum to have been built on Memorial Drive was designed by one of the best living architects, Renzo Piano from Italy. It was conceived as a pair of humanly scaled pavilions surrounded by trees. The community shot down the plan for this potentially great work of architecture.(Photograph / Renzo Piano Building Workshop)

Boston City Hall
Admired as a strong sculptural form by architects, Boston City Hall is widely unloved by the public. Surrounded by a wasteland of plaza, it seems fortresslike. It was designed in a style called Brutalism, which celebrated what was seen as the heroic power and honesty of concrete. (Photograph / Peter Vanderwarker)

Peabody Terrace
Harvard University's modernist cluster of riverside housing for married students is admired by architects but despised by almost everyone else. (Photograph / Globe archives)

Spangler Center
The brick-and-stucco building at Harvard Business School is a playful invention on a Colonial theme. Photograph: Harvard Business School

Allston Library
By combining conventional and modern elements, the new branch building of the Boston Public Library manages to satisfy the desires of both architects and the larger population. (Photograph / Globe archives)