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Boston Globe Magazine - January 24, 2010
SLIDESHOWIn praise of ugly buildings
Could this be the decade during which Boston?s most ridiculed are recognized as treasures?
STATE SERVICE CENTER STANIFORD STREET
YEAR COMPLETED > 1970
THE LANDMARKS COMMISSION?S VIEW
?Still controversial, the building?s huge scale, provocative arrangement of forms, and complex spatial sequences are ambitious and experimental, yet have also been criticized as aggressive and disorienting.? (Photograph by Bruce T. Martin)
By Sarah Schweitzer | January 24, 2010
If you?re like most people, here?s your take on Boston?s mid-century-modern buildings: architectural abominations that stomped into town in the 1950s, ?60s, and ?70s, trampled the delicate brickwork of yesteryear, assumed outsize proportions in the skyline, and today lord their ribbed concrete and geometric eccentricities over the city like barbarians that got through the gate. Mayor Tom Menino is right there with you. He minces no words when it comes to his dislike of our most famous mid-century-modern building, Boston City Hall.
But after half a century, at the start of a new decade, perhaps the time has come for a reconsideration: Could it be that the buildings are not inherently out of place in Boston? That rather they are feats of imagination and craftsmanship and tragically misunderstood -- the architectural equivalent of an abstract Jackson Pollock painting or a forbidding 12-tone Arnold Schoenberg orchestral work.
?These buildings broke with hundreds of years of tradition, so people have a hard time with them,? says David Fixler, a Boston architect and president of the New England chapter of DOCOMOMO, an international group that seeks to preserve modern architecture. ?But the more they understand them, the more they appreciate them.?
?To just say they are ugly is a cop-out,? says Chris Grimley, a designer and co-curator of an exhibit last year at the South End?s pinkcomma gallery that celebrated Boston?s mid-century-modern buildings. ?They are very noble, authentic architecture.?
Defenders of the structures recently got a boost when the city?s Landmarks Commission scrutinized the downtown landscape and concluded that earlier surveys of post-World War II buildings had displayed a ?widespread lack of understanding, appreciation, and context for buildings of this period.? Some are, in fact, ?architectural treasures,? the commission concluded, even as ?modern architecture has not yet gained the popular stature of traditional design in our culture.?
Resentment of modern buildings was bound to be acute in Boston. We are a city that revels in our history. The mid-century-modern buildings -- most notoriously, those that rose in Government Center on the site of the leveled Scollay Square -- buried blocks of history to make room for themselves. But the buildings? defenders say that past sins must be forgiven and that the buildings should be recognized for their own history -- that of ushering Boston into the 20th century. When they were built, Boston was suffering from the departure of its manufacturing base. Nothing of note had been built in downtown for decades. The new buildings rising on the skyline were a sign of turnaround. ?These buildings countered the perception that Boston was an economic backwater,? says Mark Pasnik, a Boston architect and co-curator of the pinkcomma gallery exhibit.
And how better to mark a new beginning than with a new look? There would be no tinkering around the edges, no nips and tucks to styles of old. The modern buildings upended conventions and burst forth with swagger and bravado; they were often shaped from concrete, newly rediscovered as a durable and expressive construction material. Structures such as the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, 133 Federal, and St. Anthony Shrine emerged highly stylized and jarring to conservative Bostonian eyes, and they constituted what Boston University architecture professor Keith Morgan calls ?large-scale works of public sculpture.?
Take the State Service Center, a building housing health and welfare agencies on Staniford Street that consistently is waved off as one of the ugliest buildings in Boston. But a close look reveals delicate theatrics, much like a Gothic cathedral. The concrete walls are chiseled to look like corduroy, stairs curve and bend around pillars and bridges like unfolded paper fans, and painstaking detail can be glimpsed throughout -- a handrail perfectly molded to fit the grip of a human hand. The building is commentary, too. Rising when social strictures were being jettisoned as artifice, its concrete structural components were deliberately left visible to the eye, with no brick walls or stone sheaths as a veneer. The building leaves mid-century-modern fans awe-struck. ?Spectacular,? Fixler says. Pasnik notes: ?So bizarre and bold and full of chutzpah, at a minimum everyone should agree it is compelling.? Yet calls continue for its demolition.
In other cities, mid-century-moderns often have fared little better. Many remain under threat of razing. Some have been so radically overhauled that their unique qualities have been stripped away. New York?s 2 Columbus Circle overlooking Central Park, once dismissed as kitsch, underwent a recent renovation in which its marble exterior was replaced with glazed terra-cotta tiles -- which one critic panned as ?schoolmarmish.?
Preservationists say that these mid-century-moderns need not be flies in amber. The key to their survival likely lies in sensitive reworkings that honor the structures? integrity but make them more palatable to the public. (The Barbican arts center in London and the Yale architecture-school building in New Haven are two restorations held up as exemplars.) Even some tending-to would help. Many of Boston?s mid-century-moderns have been allowed to deteriorate, and their exteriors have turned sooty and water-stained.
Bostonians owe these buildings a bit more time. Architecture styles tend to suffer the heaviest criticism 30 to 50 years after their introduction, Fixler explains. Victorian architecture came under ridicule in the mid 20th century, and calls for its eradication were heard. Mid-century-moderns may have landed in a pool of criticism from the get-go. But with open minds, Bostonians could come to love them. Or at least respect them.
Sarah Schweitzer is a member of the Globe staff. E-mail her at email@example.com.