Downtown View:Heroic

By Karen Cord Taylor

Mayor John Hynes was elected in 1949, John Collins in 1960. Collins brought in Ed Logue as the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, established in 1957.

These men faced a problem. Boston was in trouble. After a depression, two wars, long-time corruption and a changing industrial base, the city was losing manufacturing, jobs and population. The mayors and Logue intended to re-invent Boston.

This is the story with which the authors of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (The Monacelli Press) begin their tale of how, beginning in the 1960s, concrete took over architecture in America’s most tradition-bound city.

The book is arranged in essays by various architects and critics with accompanying photos far too small. Photographs of Boston’s Brutalist buildings in the middle portion of the book are better. Reading the book, you’ll realize concrete buildings are everywhere, many of which were in the background before. (The Colonnade Hotel?)

The authors suggest that, partly because of the mayors’ and Logue’s efforts, heroic could replace the term Brutalism, taken from the French béton brut, meaning raw concrete.

It certainly took guts to defy tradition and take big steps. It was government investing in infrastructure that would jump-start a resurgence. That’s the heroic part.

But the re-invention was mixed. Hynes and the BRA demolished the old West End and built the regrettable Central Artery. But Hynes persuaded the Prudential Insurance Company to build Boston’s first skyscraper over old railroad yards. Its construction from 1960 to 1964 was a hopeful sign.

The real effort, however, was creating Government Center. This is where concrete triumphed with its centerpiece, Boston City Hall.

The authors point out such virtues of Boston City Hall as the city councilors’ offices overlooking the public space of City Hall Plaza. They describe its monumentality and the patterns of light and shadow created by its detail. The authors go into rapture over Paul Rudolph’s Government Services Building. And love for the Christian Science Center spills over like the water does in its long rectangular pool.

They delve into the origins of béton brut, practiced by Le Corbusier and other Europeans before the style came to America. Béton brut was a departure from the thin International Style. They contend it follows a classical tradition.

A problem with this book—maybe it is my problem reading about art and architecture—is what do some sentences mean? “Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work.” Really?

“Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.” Ethical?

Or “Heroic architecture . . . [was] meant to reveal the realities of its time and forge a new honesty . . .” Does concrete reveal realities anymore than, let’s say, steel?

And “the New Brutalism was an idealism about realism.” Hmmm.

The book brings up many questions. Brutalism is admired by architects and critics. Regular people, not so much. Today a writer describing Back Bay Station, pointed out the “forbidding” concrete wall. Fortress-like is another term commoners use to describe these buildings. Why is there a schism between professionals and lay people? Would lay people like Brutalism more if we were better educated? Or are architects shunned if they don’t follow the line?

How much should we take into account people’s physical reaction to concrete? It gets dirty. It’s cold. We’d rather stand next to tiger maple.

The Christian Science Center is another example of attracting people or not. We learn that the Christian Scientists, behaving like Christians, built concrete Church Park across the street before they demolished the 19th-century row houses along Massachusetts Avenue and opened up the handsome view to the church buildings. This meant displaced residents had homes.

This complex is admired for its geometry and its long reflecting pool. But even in summer, compared to a teeming Boston sidewalk, few people gather along the pool’s edges or walk through the site. Do people have to want to be there for good architecture to take place?

How important is a sense of place to a building’s success? The Brutalist New England Aquarium could be in Framingham for all the nods it gives to its harbor side location. The Hurley Building ignores its neighbors on Cambridge Street. Early Brutalist Le Corbusier designed a building at Harvard that looks as if it belongs in a suburb with two-acre zoning rather than along the low-key urban Quincy Street.

How well does a building have to work be an asset? City Hall’s layout was organized—services on the bottom, offices at the top—but people find it hard to navigate. Worse are the acoustics. The authors gave a talk at City Hall in the foyer, envisioned by its architects as a place for performances and presentations. We could hear only half their talk. In the city council’s hearing room, you can’t hear either.

Finally, would Boston, with its hospitals and universities, have come back from the brink without the heroics of its leaders and architecture? We’ll never know.

One thing is for sure. These buildings are here to stay. Bill Le Messurier, the late, renowned structural engineer, said the only way to demolish Boston City Hall would be “with a controlled nuclear device.”

But the heroic buildings are in dire need. Many of them are government buildings, and we know how hard it is to get money to spend on the public sector these days. We need to clean, repair, enhance, even re-configure these behemoths to make them better fit into the city and make us feel better about living with them.

How soon do you think that’s going to happen?


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