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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Diller Scofidio’s Institute of Contemporary Art is just trying too hard. Is 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.
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. 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.
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.