A lot of people hate this building. This is Boston City Hall, a famous (some might say notorious) brutalist concrete structure finished in 1968 by Kallman, McKinnell and Knowles. To students and admirers of 20th century architecture–including your blogger–it is a landmark building in every sense, important for architectural, historical, and civic reasons. For others it is a gloomy horror, a thumb in the eye of an historic American city. As such, it is a perfect lens through which we can examine the various tensions between modern architecture, sustainability, and historic preservation.
The building has always had its haters, and continues to be reviled by some today. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, heretofore a strong ally of historic preservation, has proposed selling the building and its site and building a “green” city hall elsewhere. Opponents of the sale cite an almost certain demolition if the property is sold, and additionally note that the construction of a new building, even a green building, always uses much more energy than the reuse of an already existing building.
When New York City’s Penn Station fell in 1963, says author Lorraine Diehl, its architectural character had been abused and neglected by its owner. Its architectural style was judged archaic and hopelessly inappropriate. Cleaning and maintenance had lapsed, advertising signage obscured architectural features, and unsympathetic modifications and renovations had disturbed the original design intent.
In Boston, the City Hall public plaza, designed for the gathering of people, is now used to park city vehicles. Defenders of City Hall note that maintenance has been poor, with light bulbs not replaced. When I visited last week, the windows were dirty, and visible rust was present on the window mullions. A close look at the above photograph will reveal a weed tree, 24 inches high, growing unmolested from the small roof projecting at the building’s corner (look for its shadow). Shall Boston have its own version of Penn Station, a modern monument lost to disinterest and cynicism? Take a trip this summer and decide for yourself.
The 1990 Eindhoven Statement is a statement of principles concerning the preservation of notable modern structures. Docomomo continues this advocacy work internationally today. It is a truism (if not a cliche) of preservation that buildings between 30-60 years old are typically the most endangered and least protected (Penn Station was demolished in its 53rd year). While most cities have made significant progress in protecting pre-war buildings and neighborhoods, post-war buildings are felled almost without protest.
Detroit has plenty enough to worry about regarding all of its historic buildings, but all the same preservationists cannot afford to ignore the importance of its rich collection of auto-age structures.
As you may have inferred, last week I was at the AIA convention in Boston, an annual event bringing together thousands of architects and designers. The convention was held in the recently completed Boston Convention and Exhibition Center (BCEC) by Rafael Vinoly Architects. Although a bit obstreperous for the waterfront Boston context, as civic architecture the new convention center far exceeds other timid efforts closer to home.
Displayed within the BCEC is a scale model of Boston’s downtown, commissioned and maintained by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. City Hall can be located very near the center of the image below.
If you look carefully at the above image, you will note the strange disconnect in the fabric of the built environment between the North End (foreground) and downtown Boston. Between the two is a path of trees and greenery from left to right in the photograph, which traces the route of a former elevated interstate highway, the “Central Artery” of I-93. This is the famous “Big Dig“.
Today the elevated freeway is gone, replaced by the automotive tunnel underneath and a budding linear park at street level. Although the project was difficult, the results are heartening. There is one column of steel remaining, perhaps as a remembrance of the vicious things we have done to our cities, and furthermore the hope that there is always a way to reconstitute the civic beauty we have lost.
The many pleasures and unexpected delights of urban living are a recurring theme for this blog. Unfortunately, today we must examine one of the rare downsides of city life, the risk of fire in dense urban districts.
John J. Harvey in New York Harbor, 2004.
There was news yesterday from Lawrence, Massachusetts, that 14 historic downtown buildings were destroyed in an overnight fire. Lawrence was the setting for the historic 1912 ‘Bread and Roses’ strike, a signature event during the labor turmoil of the progressive era. Lawrence is additionally home to the Downtown Lawrence Historic District, composed of 26 buildings and listed on the National Register since 1979. The historic district is north of the burned block, across the Merrimack River, and was not affected by the blaze.
Last week here in Los Angeles, we watched from the ninth floor of our office building as a nearby two-story apartment building burned for nearly two hours. In New York City, where multi-family living is the rule, an apartment fire nearby is a dreaded event.
Ladder Company 108 in Brooklyn, 2003.
With its preponderance of detached single-family dwellings, Detroit is actually less subject to the ravages of firestorms spreading from one residence to the next. Of course, Detroit has its share of tragedy due to fire. While the plague of arson has largely dissipated in recent years, the bitter cold of winter and resultant use of dangerous heating devices continue to cause loss and heartbreak.
As the city reinvents itself in coming decades, updated building codes, and especially the use of automatic sprinkler systems, will help limit fire damage. However, as curators and keepers of historic buildings, we must make every effort to guard against the sudden and irreversible consequences of fire.
Today I’d like to highlight this NYT piece about urban infrastructure funding. In it, the financial role of Yale University in keeping up parts of New Haven is discussed.
On Sunday, the Free Press reported that street names in Pleasant Ridge are being considered for sale, which is not an altogether unrelated issue.
And in New York, there continues to be concern about the riches showered on Central Park while other public recreation areas in the city are neglected.
Boston has tried this, and a New York preservationist supports the idea. Of course there is more than a hint of political theory wound up in this private/public funding debate; but to my eyes advocates of private funding for public infrastructure are neglecting the long term implications of this trend. Specifically, private donors are able to ’support’ infrastructure of their own choosing, while bureaucracies (love ‘em or hate ‘em) at least have to pay lip service to the idea that tax revenue is being distributed equitably among different needs: needs that have presumably been analyzed and studied by professionals like yours truly. It is hard to imagine donors fighting for the naming rights of subway stations in struggling East New York, or corporations underwriting the renovation of obscure playgrounds in south Los Angeles. Are they just left behind in this new financing calculus?
Cortelyou Road subway station, Brooklyn.
There’s a lot to think about here, but I’ll be touching on many of these issues in the months ahead. As a thought for today, and as a launching point for bringing this discussion into our Detroit-centric world, it is sobering to consider the prospects for desperately-needed infrastructure funding in cities largely devoid of magnificently rich institutions and peopled by residents not in certain target-marketing demographics.
Know of any?
Your faithful blogger spent New Year's Day in Pasadena, California, attending the Rose Parade. Growing up in Detroit, many of us have watched the parade on television, marveling at the sunny skies and crowds of people. Here's the view from our spot on Colorado Boulevard a few miles east of the network cameras:
Although I'd been to the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day parade along Woodward Avenue half a dozen times, I really did not understand parades until I lived in New York City. There you will find parades (almost every week in the warmer months) celebrating nearly any group or holiday. Here's a shot of the German-American parade along Fifth Avenue in 2002, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the background:
But parades in New York, importantly, are not limited to a particular main boulevard. You will find parades on the east side, on the west side, on 125th Street in Harlem, downtown, and in Greenwich Village, like the locally-broadcast Village Halloween parade in 2004, at which I took this sadly blurred shot:
And you won't find parades only in Manhattan. All the boroughs feature parades as well. Living on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx in 2001, I was awakened one morning by noise and music from the Bronx Gay Pride parade:
And of course, some of the most heavily attended urban parades are the one-time-only parade events, be they the ticker tape parades down Broadway or this 2004 parade for the champion Boston Red Sox (certainly not in NYC):
Parades are a fixture of healthy urban environments, and a fantastic cultivator of street life and urban community. Let's hear about your experiences with parades around Detroit and elsewhere.