The Sad State of Architecture in Boston

June 21, 2012
By

It’s exciting to look at the drawings of Millennium Partners’ skyscraper superimposed on the Filene’s hole. Its interesting shape and slender profile make it look like a building in 2012 should look—at least in conservative Boston. I wish the building had a more interesting top, and I wonder why city officials tolerate these flat-topped building. It is also puzzling why city officials continue to allow tall buildings with uniform floor plates, rising unvaryingly and boringly straight to the sky. Perhaps it is so that if they say a project should be six stories lower, the developer can just lop off the top with no extra architecture fees. If I were in charge of Boston, I’d encourage buildings that gradually step in as they rise with pointy tops, round tops—anything but flat. But I’m not in charge of anything, much less Boston.

Despite my mild criticisms, Millennium’s building is far superior to what passes for architecture in the variously named Innovation District, Seaport District, and the name no developer ever wants to use: the South Boston Waterfront. Like State Street Corporation’s building that is slated for tax breaks, the Seaport District’s buildings are squat, clunky, updated versions of office park style. At first it looked as if the area might turn out looking like Crystal City in northern Virginia, and, in fact, it does evoke that strange place. Since the district can’t contain buildings with greater height because of airport landing requirements, it should have a few streets with townhouses in an updated Back Bay style to give it some variety. Anything to staunch the office park look.

But it’s not just in that district that architecture suffers from banality. It’s anywhere there is a site left over for building. The DeNormandie Companies’ clunky building proposed for Parcel 9 facing the Greenway is the same kind of 1980s office park offering. Yet it is favored by the Haymarket vendors—they know the developer better than they know the proposers of other projects because he owns the crumbling, dilapidated buildings surrounding the parcel. And that design is also praised by several advisory committee members. They were dazzled by the reputation of the architects of the building and prefer puny, boring and insignificant to something bolder and more interesting. Ah, Boston.

Our city used to be compared to European cities, most frequently London. But London now has the Gherkin—which looks more like a torpedo, but never mind. It also has the prickly-looking Millennium Dome, now known as the O2 Dome, and the steep pyramid called the Shard, designed by Renzo Piano. And, recently emerging successfully from a lawsuit, the feather-topped Quill is supposed to start construction soon. The latter two buildings will stand near the iconic Tower Bridge. These buildings are controversial and, actually, pretty outrageous. But they are not safe or boring, as Boston’s new buildings threaten to be.

For London, it is a relief to have these dramatic buildings. This city was rebuilt after the bombing devastation of World War II in a fashion evoking the Bauhaus. These dirty, industrial-looking, mass produced buildings make you suspect that architecturally at least, the Germans won.

We don’t have the Germans to blame for our replacements on rubble-strewn lots. It was the space for railroads and buildings considered outmoded that we’re filling up.

I’m not suggesting that we go as far as Dubai, which is soon apparently going to enjoy an underwater hotel with an above water lobby shaped like spaceships.

But one small building—Mass General’s new museum—has broken the mould of boring Boston buildings. And Millennium’s proposal is the best that’s been offered to us in a large building for a long time.

Now, if we could only get Don Chiafaro going again on a replacement for that dreadful Greenway garage. He may not get along with the mayor, but he’s bold. Let’s hope that boldness gets redirected into some interesting architecture.

  • S Boardman

    While you are looking at architecture, please write something about the vulgar McMansionization of Charlestown. There are examples on Bartlett Street between Pearl and Sullivan; Elm Street; Sullivan Street between Bartlett and High; Bunker Hill Street at Pearl; Bartlett Street at School Street; and Walker Street at the corner of High. Their design is large, boxy, heavy handed gestures to tradition that fool no one. The new construction routinely fills lots to the nth degree, looming over the sidewalk, blocking previously open, airy vistas and intruding on the scale of the street. No one at City Hall (BRA) seems to mind. Who has responsibility for approving this construction?

Full Print Edition