Daily Archives: November 3, 2015

New things in Boston

Boston does change, and it has probably added as many new buildings as other cities its size in the past 30 years, but the percentage of change seems smaller, since so many old buildings remain.  There have been two big changes, and many more localized ones:

There are small changes to existing building, such as the art installation on the Hancock.DSCF2628

And at dusk you can see other changes, such as how the various tenants have designed their lighting:DSCF2950c

Boston may preserve its pre-modern heritage, but its lack of affection for some modernist classics is becoming evident.  Paul Rudolph’s complex at Government Center was never finished, and now it looks like it’s falling apart. We used to throw frisbees on the plaza, and watch in dismay as they fell through one of the large holes into the netherworld of the parking garage below.  That plaza is now full of chain-link fences – perhaps in our insane post-9-11 security mania someone decided that the holes violated the security perimeter, so they have been enclosed.  Between the fences, weeds and general lack of maintenance, the building looks like a wreck.  Maybe it is Boston’s attempt to catch up with Detroit as a center for ruin porn.

Even more surprising is what has been done to the City Hall.  It is a building Bostonians love to hate, similar to our scorn for the Portland Building.  I’ve always saved my scorn for the pointless, overscaled, empty plaza, thinking that the building itself is a pretty rigorous Brutalist icon.  But it is now suffering the death of a thousand cuts.  The big ramps and access points to the building have been closed off, no doubt in another security frenzy.DSCF2794

What was once an awe-inspiring interior formal stair hall has been strewn with junk – a random potted plantDSCF2799

garbage cans at important points, brightly colored tape on all the brick stairs, a painted blue tarp which obscures the stair to the council chamber, and a truly crappy coffee bar right in the middle.DSCF2814

It’s just depressing.  I know the building has problems, but it would be nice to deal with them in a systematic and thoughtful way, rather than letting everyone add whatever junk they wanted to.

And of course we can’t blog about crappy new things in Boston without revisiting the master of kitsch, Philip Johnson.  HIs 500 Boylston building is appalling, the kind of embarrassing banality that caused the downfall of postmodernism.  I can’t decide whether I hate this or his PPG Place more.

There have been many new towers built downtown in the past decades. Most of them are awful – under-detailed and overscaled, the same as has happened to every other big city.  But once again Boston’s heritage comes to the rescue – there are enough good old buildings that the new ones don’t overwhelm it.  The old ones certainly make the new ones look bad, but the counterpoint between them is not unpleasant.DSCF4345

It does look much better at night.

One big new thing is the redevelopment of the harbor edge of Southie.  This has a new meaningless developer name, the Seaport District, probably because SOuthie NOrth (SONO) was already in use somewhere else.  There’s a new gargantuan convention center, a bunch of monstrous hotels, and now condos are popping up everywhere. DSCF4301

The one good building is Pei’s federal courthouse.  Not a stunner, but a simple parti with historicist leanings.  It was the first new building in the area, but it had no impact upon what followed.

Diller Scofidio’s Institute of Contemporary Art is just trying too hard.  DSCF4337Is anyone else getting tired of giant cantilevers for no reason?  I guess it shelters the seating below, an amphitheatre for Boston Harbor, but frankly, looking across the water to East Boston is not a view that should be emphasized. Maybe the district will grow up around it it, but right now it looks like every other piece of starchitect branding.

The general level of work in the district is not promising, but no worse than this stuff in every other city.  And maybe that’s the saddest part – Boston has always been a distinct place, with its own character, style, history, etc.  Even when it got its festival marketplace, Quincy Market, it made use of fabulous older buildings.  But this Seaport District looks like it could be in Orlando, Dallas, Indianapolis, or Miami.
DSCF4338 DSCF4323 DSCF4328

The other big new thing in Boston is the Big Dig – the removal of the Central Artery and its replacement with tunnels carrying the traffic. DSCF4303 It is now called the (Rose Kennedy) Greenway, and it took me a while to get my head around it.  You know how hard it is to remember what exactly was in a certain place when it’s gone?  The Greenway is that to the nth degree. You recognize the old buildings and streets that were there before, but the relationship among them is totally different.  You try to figure out where the nasty little tunnel to the North End was.  Then you realize you have a view out to the harbor that was never there before.

The Greenway doesn’t seem to have much of an identity, and I mean that in a good way.  There isn’t a grand formal vision for the whole.  It is a series of connected, but not totally unified pieces;  the whole is not necessarily greater than the sum of the parts.  The Greenway is not a thing, it is the absence of the horrible thing that was there before.  I think the designers wisely decided not to replace it with another thing, but rather to create a number of smaller-scale pieces, each of which can relate to its immediate context, and try to pull the pieces together.  Once you get away from the Common, downtown Boston never had a lot of open space, and with the advent of giant new buildings, it might have been overwhelming, without the giant new open space.  To be hurrying through the financial district’s winding canyons at rush hour is intense, then stepping out into the Greenway on the way to South Station is a contrast and a relief.DSCF2896

There are some very good parts.DSCF2842 DSCF4371

Of course it was way over budget, and of course it took way longer than predicted and created a lot of controversy, but in the end, it is a Very Good Thing.  Perhaps it says something about Boston – what other city would spend billions of dollars on a project that made the city better, but didn’t produce a big shiny object that jumps up and screams look at me!  New York couldn’t do it – the urban design downtown at the World Trade Center is a disaster, with gigantic, pointless open space and preening object buildings.  The Greenway is Boston at its best, a simple, understated, classy solution.

Shores, South and North

The towns on both the South and North Shores of Boston are some of the oldest settlements in the country, mostly founded in the 17th century. The centers of these towns preserve that original character and spatial arrangement, at the core of what have since become suburbs.  The juxtapositions between old houses and modern strip development can be jarring, especially to someone from the West Coast, where everything has been built in a shorter time frame.



When I lived in the Boston area I never got to explore the environs as much as I wanted, as I didn’t have a car,  So staying with friends both in Scituate on the South Shore and Boxford near Ipswich on the North Shore was a great opportunity to see these places.  What made it even better was that my friends are long-time residents of these areas, and showed me around to places and buildings I would never have known about.  (Greta missed most of this as she was back in Eugene visiting Linda.)

Scituate, Lighthouse Road

Scituate, Lighthouse Road

The South Shore has an intricately varied shoreline, with many small coves and larger harbors.  The historic town cores are on the harbors, with later houses filling along the shore between them, and 20th century development spreading to the interior.  Scituate has four “cliffs” that stick out into the bay (we have the northwesterner’s amusement for how topographical terms are used here) which have highly clustered houses on small lots by the water.

Scituate, Lighthouse Road

Scituate, Lighthouse Road

Places that are this old accumulate interesting artifacts, such as this former water tower that was made to look like a Rhenish tower, as the rich person living nearby didn’t like looking at the ugly water tower.

the very interesting water tower in Scituate

the very interesting water tower in Scituate

The Trustees of Reservations is an organization that owns more than 100 significant properties in Massachusetts, from the famous to the obscure.  We visited World’s End, which Olmsted designed as a residential development on a neck in Hingham, but it was never built out. It is now an open space reserve owned by the Trustees.
Olmsted designed a residential development on a neck in Hingham, but it was never built out. It is now an open space reserve, called World's End.

World's End, with Boston in the distance.

World’s End, with Boston in the distance.

We visited Ipswich (where Updike live and worked) and Topsfield on the North Shore, finally seeing the famous Parson Capen house from 1683, which is from that period when settlers built what were essentially English houses, having not yet adapted them to the New England conditions.
the Capen house in Toppsfield, from 1670.

A Classical Revival church spotted on a trip north to Exeter, so technically not on the North Shore, but too good to not post.
actually somewhere in southern New Hampshire, but close enough

Newburyport, at the mouth of the Merrimack River, with well-preserved downtown and residential areas.





Driving around on the winding roads, past the estates of the North Shore, we headed towards Crane’s Beach, a beautiful landscape of drumlins (there’s a word I want to find more opportunities to use) and marshes.
the marshes near Crane's Beach

The Crane Estate, by Shepley Rutan Coolidge etc., sitting on top of Castle Hill, is the leading example of how much money there was to be made in plumbing fixtures.
the Crane Estate on Castle Hill, by Shepley Rutan Coolidge etc.
Crane Estate

The spectacular landscape was designed by the Olmsted brothers.

the landscape by the Olmsted brothers. Notice the framed view on the axis.

Notice the framed view on the axis.

the allee running north from the house. I don't know what the flags signify, but I wish they weren't there. Louis XIV had a nice allee too, but his just ended in a can, not the Atlantic Ocean.

the allee running north from the house. I don’t know what the flags signify, but I wish they weren’t there. Louis XIV had a nice allee too, but his just ended in a canal, not the Atlantic Ocean.

A few days of exploring these shores just wasn’t enough – I could have happily spent a day in each town.  What struck me the most was just how many beautiful old towns there are, so close to Boston.  The summer resort venues of the Cape and the Islands tend to be better known, but these small towns in the Boston area are just as wonderful.