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Red Brick And Beyond: How Boston Architecture Works & The Truth About City Hall

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Good news for Charlie.
Boston City Archives

The sensible and world-wise decision of the Walsh administration not to cave in, as Mayor Tom Menino did, to misguided populist demands that the city tear down Kallman and McKinnel's new City Hall — a building lauded globally as one of the triumphs of Boston architecture — has now had the good result that the plan to upgrade the now half-century-old City Hall has taken a decisive step closer to fruition. The architects have now been selected to carry out this task: the firm of Utile, a brighter and younger constellation of architectural talent than usually wins such awards in a city of so many sluggish and older development architects. Graduates of Machado Silvetti, Boston's star architects for many years now, dominate Utile. Utile’s work includes: a remodeling of the Dudley Branch of the Boston Public Library and the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion, a finalist in 2014 for the Harleston Parker Award for the most beautiful building in Greater Boston. Currently Utile is at work on an addition to the Jamaica Plain BPL branch. There are many aspects to this opportunity. Boston's most characteristic and revealing architecture is the early- and mid-19th century Boston Granite Style, pioneered by Bulfinch himself (Massachusetts General Hospital) and reflected in the two subsequent modes — the Richardsonian (Trinity Church) and Heroic Concrete (the New City Hall) that constitute Boston's finest architectural tradition.

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boston-city-hall.jpg
Good news for Charlie.
Boston City Archives
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JP-Library-02.jpg
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But Boston red brick does have its place in the scheme of things. Nor is there any contradiction in this. Although both Bulfinch and Charles McKim used red brick well, the fact of the matter is, however startling people find it, the most inspired use of that material in Boston is actually to be found in the early Modernist architecture of the 1940s and '50s.

Witness Baker House: the famously curvilinear MIT dormitory. In terms of modern architecture in America, there is no more important example. Built in the 1940s, it is the work of Alvar Aalto, the brilliant Finnish architect. Stanford Anderson, in his book-length study Alvar Aalto, points out that "red brick is a standard of Boston and even of the prestigious Harvard University … up the Charles River." These facts informed Aalto's choice of material.

Whether or not Aalto knew that Bulfinch would have preferred granite is beside the point in this context.

In fact, the colonial architect had to settle for red brick and the image he created became an historical fact, all the more significant for its association with the Revolutionary period in which Boston first appeared on the world stage. Thus it may well be said that Aalto, in seeking to honor what in purely architectural terms is a fairly mundane red-brick legacy ended up endowing Boston with something of a glorious finale to that legacy.

Fanueil Hall is a building of immense historical importance as a revolutionary landmark, but it is fairly routine architecture. Baker House, historically just another dormitory, is architecturally a masterwork.

So too is the MIT Chapel, among its few rivals anywhere, built just north of Baker House. The work of Eero Saarinen, this modernist masterpiece certainly does not banish the iconic image of the traditional steeples and town greens of New England, but in an overall ranking of civilization's architectural achievements, it is possible the MIT Chapel is the most beautiful church in New England.

I bring all this up because no one seems quick to notice that Kallman and McKinnell's majestic Boston City Hall is as importantly Boston red brick as heroic concrete. Indeed, the stature of the building would be very different without the brick lower stories; the reason it is sometimes described by the cognoscenti as "Le Corbusier above, Alvar Aalto below." And "below" merges beautifully into the brick plaza, which is not to be trifled with, either. City Hall Plaza should remain brick.

That points to another aspect of the opportunity which now presents itself. Hall and plaza are inseparable. It is something of a truism that the City Hall is superbly sited and knit into the surrounding city on the southern side next to Brattle Crescent, but that the whole design "leaks out" on the Federal Building side. Yet opening up the perspective toward the Old North Church from downtown was a brilliant idea, which must not be lost in the same way, for instance, that the important water feature of the original plaza has been lost. If the original fountain can be restored, it should be.

Walter Muir Whitehill, who knew more about "historic" Boston than anyone alive today, loved Government Center and had — I — a lot to do with that original fountain. Look again at the period photographs of what City Hall Plaza looked like when it was new and cherished, before it was allowed by philistine politicians to become a giant parking lot.

There is something unsatisfying about City Hall Plaza. And I hope those now proposing to improve it will make a point of revisiting Boston's masterpiece of a modernist plaza, the Christian Science Center, which spreads out with such grandeur and elegance around its block long reflecting pool, and is as beloved by Bostonians as the City Hall Plaza is not. They should spend some time ruminating about the matter of plazas surrounded by success, not failure.

They should also visit Toronto and pay particular attention to its acclaimed Music Garden. The idea was Yo Yo Ma’s, the Boston-based cellist of international repute. The music garden was intended for that long vacant strip between the plaza and the adjoining JFK Building. Inspired by Bach's Suite No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello, it was envisioned by the cellist and his collaborator, landscape designer Julie Moir Messevy, to express physically the beauty of the structure of Bach's music.

Why is it in Toronto? That city's mayor, Barbara Hall, had the repute of being an "arts mayor," something no one ever accused Thomas Menino of. Like his predecessor, Raymond Flynn, Menino was pop culture all the way, and hadn't a clue about architecture or landscape design. However, none of this is really his fault. The city that leaves aesthetic decisions of that sort to politicians deserves what it gets. As has lately happened in the case of the much hyped Cancer Garden and gazebo (the latter in Menino's memory) which now disfigures a corner of the plaza instead of the Music Garden.

An anonymous respondent in the Globe got it exactly right — no one else has quite registered this abomination yet — when he or she noted "this Home Depot bargain basement" gazebo's role in "claptrap [that would be] an embarrassment on the village green in Podunk. I'm not putting down the well-intentioned people who I'm sure put their hearts into this, but 'World Class City'? This is an embarrassment." Certainly if the Boston Society of Architects does not make plain what a civic blight has suddenly appeared, they really ought to just close down and go home.

"Who allowed this to happen?" the Globe's respondent asked, and I thought at once of a most insightful article that appeared recently in Boston Magazine by an editor there with a background in architecture, Rachel Slade. "The dirty little secret behind Boston's building boom is that its profoundly banal, designed without any imagination, straight out of the box, built to please banks rather than people," characterized largely by "the most stomach-turning kind of suburban 'town-like' architecture." Let us in this connection name some names: CBT and Elkus Manfredi must head the list of those design firms responsible for this citywide calamity, such a contrast to the development of the Back Bay in the 19th century.

I wish I could say the new subway headhouse was better, but its not really, and is yet another example of somebody — nobody knows who — just plumping down on the plaza their latest crazy idea. It blocks a crucial view of City Hall from Tremont Street. Boston University professor Keith Morgan, an architectural historian who grasps Boston's character with frightening candor, writes to me in response to all this: "The whole corruption of City Hall Plaza is appalling. The middle-class suburban world view has taken over a world-class urban space."

In this case the place to ruminate is Howeler and Moon's Collier Memorial at MIT, dedicated to the police officer murdered in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing. Collier is, so to speak, custom-designed to its purpose, site-specific, imaginative, and of high quality, whereas the gazebo is generic off-the-shelf, nothing to do with the place, pure pastiche.

I repeat: A city that leaves such decisions to its politicians deserves what it gets. It has always been the case that academia has led in this department, the reason Ada Louise Huxtable wrote once in The New York Times that "strictly speaking, Boston's great educational institutions, Harvard and MIT, were the real crucible in which American [not just Boston's] modern architecture was formed." Thus one can take some solace overall that's still happening. There is Machado Silvetti's magnificent graduate dormitory for Harvard on the Charles and, more recently, Kennedy Violich's addition to Tozzer Anthropology Building, also at Harvard, a stunning design.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh does seem to be the exception, in that there are signs he is open to a higher standard of design. However, in the land of the Philistines, there is much to do.

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