The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 30 September 2016


Concrete Architecture and the New Boston

edited by Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo and Chris Grimley

In the middle of the 20th century, the urban landscape of Boston was in deep decline due to decades of civic and corporate policies that made progressive development pretty much impossible. Few American downtowns had a built landscape in more serious disarray and decay. In the 1950s, new housing and tax policies finally allowed Boston to begin a recovery and redevelopment that would change the city's landscape in dramatic ways. Some of the overeager development, however, resulted in wholesale destruction of neighborhoods, usually those populated by the poorest people with the least economic and political power. The regretted loss of Scollay Square, the West End, the Leather District and parts of the Back Bay has obscured the story of the dramatic modern architecture that was built in their place. People tend to hate what was built because of its association with what was destroyed. Yet, some of the bold new building was progressive, modern and marked a change in how we see civic architecture. All that is changing again, now, but Boston is very much a time capsule of American urban redevelopment.

It so happened that much of the new architecture of the day, most of it within the civic realm, was of what we now call Brutalist design. This is usually characterized today as buildings built of bare concrete and glass, though Brutalism has more complex origins. Its unfortunate name suggest a brutal intervention in the landscape (which dovetails well into the narrative of urban clearances). (Indeed, the term really originates in the French phrase, béton brut, connoting raw surfaces.) But the editors of this massive re-telling of Boston's redevelopment want us to entertain the idea that this architecture was one of deeply civic responsibility and vision. It suffered from its associations and from several incompletely realized projects, but was, in their words, really of a heroic nature. This was bold, expressive, inventive and, despite its reputation, essentially humanistic architecture.

Growing up in Boston in the early 70s, this reader was often awed by the dramatic boldness of its new concrete architecture. These buildings typified a brave new future for the city, and their influence lingers decades later. In later years, this reader eventually did some of his studies at Sert's Boston University Mugar Library. The New England Aquarium, the State Street Bank, Harvard's Carpenter Center and Peabody towers, and, of course, the monumental Boston City Hall, all of these featured here, are dramatic interventions into a 19th century context. Of course their sheer audacity would inspire the imagination, in utopian as well as dystopian ways. In the 21st century, there is a modish hipster retroactive kind of adoration for Brutalist buildings. It is an admiration inspired by a cockeyed notion of past visions of the future, and sometimes neglects the true vision to which the best concrete architecture aspired.

This book, assembled from essays and interviews, in association with an exhibition of Boston's concrete architecture, sets out to resurrect the reputation of these buildings, especially in an era in which many are being demolished. The sale of even Boston's City Hall has been suggested (though the idea faded). In this volume, twenty-five such buildings are profiled, with many photos and illustrations, including reflections on their aspirations, their origins and their successes and failures. Some of these structures were never completed, such as Paul Rudolph's monumental Government Services Center or Breuer's Madison Park High School. Some have become iconic, such as City Hall, the Carpenter Center, and IM Pei's Christian Science Center. Some are beloved, though altered, such as the Aquarium and Peabody Terrace. Some are demolished, such as the Stevens and McNulty Lincoln House and Studio. For all of these, however, some alteration or demolition has been suggested as the moment for concrete has faded.

The book is punctuated, too, with insightful interviews with some of the principals in these projects. Each refelects on the excitement of that moment and the mixed reactions to the aspirations of the architecture. One of the understated masterpieces of the book is the aforementioned Stevens and McNulty residence in Lincoln. Stevens aptly describes the work as an idea that moved into reality and back into an idea again. This house is, perhaps, the finest piece in the book and it is a shame that it is gone. Still, there is much concrete form that remains to appreciate or embellish upon, depending on your point of view. The designer of the City Hall, for instance, reflects on how his vision of it as canvas for embellishment has yet to be realized. All that concrete sets apart the lives lived within them, and the design plans and dreams may yet show a kind of flexibility that doesn't seem possible on the surface, or within our prejudices against the material.

One reason concrete construction fell out of favor was increasing labor costs. Certainly, it is easy enough to build a concrete structure, though the increased amount of steel rebar (especially in earthquake-prone landscapes), and higher cost of concrete have changed the economics. But the high finish and deep articulation of the really good concrete architecture comes with significant labor and thus very high cost. As a result, the best concrete architecture happening today tends to be on a fairly small scale. At the same time, the most sculptural work being done in concrete is in ubiquitous overpass and highway construction. Despite a millennial love for the form, it isn't likely that large concrete buildings, or at least not Brutalist ones, will be popping up in our big cities. We're in a steel-and-glass world at the moment. But, as this book illustrates, moments come and go. Highly recommended.

[Mail John][To List]

See Also: [Insuring the City by Elihu Rubin] [Megastructure by Reyner Banham] [The Town of Tomorrow edited by Peter Chadwick & Ben Weaver]

[Other books about Urban Studies and Architecture]