Arts & Culture

The Boring Shapes of Things to Come


Over approximately the past decade, Boston has been experiencing some of the most significant urban development in its entire history. You simply can’t walk or drive around anywhere and not run across a work-in-progress or newly completed structure, like One Dalton Street in Boston’s Back Bay, or the New Balance world headquarters in Brighton. Around fifty high-rises were either being proposed or were already completed a year ago alone. Yet the irony is that, for all of the astronomical amounts of money being poured into these projects, and the hiring of internationally renowned architects, we are witnessing the visual degradation of our urban landscape.

The answer as to why Boston is being degraded by its shiny new additions — ostensibly testaments to a vibrant, growing, and self-committed city — is both simple and complex. At its simplest, Boston’s new architecture represents a lack of visual imagination. If a building isn’t a steel-and-glass grid of some sort (e.g., MassArt’s Design and Media Center, completed this year), it’s a bunch of intersecting boxes that have all the anonymous appeal of a hotel (e.g., Fenway’s Viridian luxury apartments) mixed with the Bauhaus school of design, whose practitioners treated even the smallest sort of ornamentation as if it were a morally suspect excess.


And yes, the works of Walter Gropius or Mies van der Rohe may very well be the reference point for many people looking at these buildings. But when talking about Boston’s new buildings and their appearances’ implications, it is helpful to contextualize them by reaching even further back than the early 20th century to show their unsavory lineage. By doing this, we can understand that buildings like the W Boston Hotel and Residences or the adjacent AVA Theater District are not only visually boring; they are symbolically ugly, in a variety of past and present ways.

In fact, the apparent tenets of modernism’s sparer structures and our own freshly raised buildings were anticipated in the 17th century. During the 1600s in Europe, especially in France, there was a gradual shift away from architecture as a non-specialized field concerned with myth and philosophy to one with more explicit ties to the scientific method and mathematics. Texts like François Blondel’s Course in Architecture (1683) attempted to conclusively perfect systems of proportions and aesthetics. Here, architecture was presented as a rationalist product extending from the broader viewpoint of the universe and experience being quantitative phenomena. The implication was that all things are ultimately knowable.

Nestled in that implication was a sort of pre-positivism: the belief that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof. Positivism fell out of favor after the 19th century, but its basic thrust can be found in the declarations and designs of 20th century architects such as Le Corbusier — architects who treated humanity as if its nuances had been figured out, and as if its inclinations could be more or less controlled by architecture. The sheer egotism, ahistoricism, and, ironically, pseudo-science of Corbusier’s and others’ perspective cannot be overstated. These were men who wanted reality to conform to their reductive views, rather than to complement humanity’s variety.

What is more important than all that for my interests, though, is that “rationality” came to have a relationship with architecture and ornament. In 1706, the architectural historian Jean-Louis de Cordemoy published his New Treatise on the Whole of Architecture, arguing for a trabeated architecture that dispensed pilasters, ornamental pediments, attic storeys, and more — very nearly everything which could be considered inessential to a building’s structural integrity. Cordemoy, much like Gropius, wanted a functional architecture. In practice, this meant largely unadorned rectangular forms with plain masonry walls and/or columns supporting lintels.

Nearly fifty years later, the Jesuit priest and architectural theorist Marc-Antoine Laugier published his Essay on Architecture, and referred to the concept of the primitive hut — a structure made up of upright posts, cross beams, and a pitched roof — as the ultimate image of architectural truth. What was new here wasn’t the concept of the primitive hut in itself, but of using it as a model of architectural excellence. Both ancient and showing nothing except its essentials, the hut ostensibly held an inherent quality of purity. On top of this, Laugier wanted even the walls of a building to go. For him, the ideal building was a series of columns carrying beams and a roof.


At the time, though, that ideal just wasn’t possible. Concerns including interior heating aside, there were practical construction issues. On the exterior of a building like Jacques-Germain Soufflot’s Panthéon in Paris (1790), you can see patches of stonework where windows used to be and were filled in due to structural concerns (fast-forward to the 20th century for a moment and you’ve got something like the recently renamed David Geffen Hall (1962); here, the exterior has been pared down to rows of unornamented columns enclosing a building which, in itself, is a sort of giant window).

Structural steel and steel-reinforced concrete were technological innovations which did, however, make this ideal possible. If a building’s skeleton were made of steel-reinforced concrete pillars and beams, its weight didn’t have to be supported by the outer walls. This allowed for a predominance of windows. Importantly, these innovations were concurrent with and complementary to the rise of industrialization, whose advocates placed implicit trust in the machination of production and society.

It was around this time that the dogma of functionality as an aesthetic really asserted itself. Boston-born Louis Sullivan, one of the popularizers of the steel high-rise, invoked the idea as if it were a moral imperative when in 1896 he wrote, “It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”


Although statements like these do parallel the appeals of Laugier or the similarly minded architect Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand, they set a different course in application. Texts like Laugier’s were ultimately appeals to “primitivism”: they longed for an untainted source of architectural beauty. This is partly how we can account for movements such as England’s Greek revival. Contrary to this, the functionality-lust of architects including Sullivan, Gropius, Corbusier, and Rohe was driven by a desire to detach from the past (thus, Adolf Loos’ 1908 text Ornament and Crime, wherein ornamentation is compared to the “uncivilized savage’s” tattoos), a fascination with the appearances of industrial structures (Gropius included photographs of grain silos in his 1925 text International Architecture), and an absurd faith in a democratic-socialist utopia where everyone would be equally valued (anticipators of this utopia saw ornament as a class-based stratifier). Perhaps the best way of explaining this difference is that the essentialism of Laugier and co. looked backwards, while that of Gropius and co. looked forwards. Both suffered from tunnel-vision, the latter more so.

This European (and very one-sidedly gendered) fascination with industrial structures included, and in fact emphasized, American factory buildings built of reinforced concrete: the Pacific Coast Borax Company’s refinery in New Jersey, for example, or the United Shoe Machinery Company factory in Massachusetts. The results of this admiration were buildings such as the Fagus Factory, designed by Gropius and Adolf Meyer. With recessed strips as the sole ornamentation on its brick surfaces, its abundant windows, and its cubic appearance, there’s not much reason why the Fagus Factory wouldn’t fit among other buildings on Northeastern University’s campus.

Instead of treating an observation like that as a testament to the Bauhaus’ enduring qualities, I would ask why the exteriors of buildings on a university’s campus resemble factories. This issue is endemic to the modern International Style and the recent development of green/sustainable architecture. In their excitement for what they saw as the honest, pure, and rational forms of industrial buildings, twentieth century architects left us with a legacy of buildings of varying uses which nonetheless all resemble factories in some way or another. This only served to symbolically reinforce the industrial-capitalist trajectory of Europe and the United States. People are shuttled through factory-schools, move into factory-apartments, and work in factory-offices.

James Howard Kunstler, in his book The Geography of Nowhere, notes another problem — that the “dogmas of modernism only helped to rationalize what the car economy demanded: bare bones buildings that served their basic functions without symbolically expressing any aspirations or civic virtues.” To bring it back to local concerns, this is a problem Robert Campbell observes in the Boston Globe: “. . . from a town planning perspective, good cities are made of good streets. As far as urban design is concerned, the buildings are there to shape the street space and energize its edges with interesting and useful things to see and do. The streets create the public world. In the Innovation District, by contrast, there are too many isolated buildings on empty lots facing streets that are too wide to support a vigorous pedestrian life. This is a suburban world, just at the moment when center cities, with their street life and density, are coming back into favor. [. . .] Most of the new architecture, too, feels wrong. The towers look about as interesting as up-ended packing crates.”

This is what Bostonians are faced with today: unimaginative architecture firms (still overwhelmingly made up of white men) who find ornamentation passé, or who haven’t figured out a way to academically justify ornamentation — all of it underpinned by a history of reductive manifestos which, rather than be questioned, are instead championed by practitioners and writers — and developing areas like the Innovation and Seaport Districts that Boston architect Josh Slater says “ the way the average person walking around would use the public space.”

It’s true that developers who want to maximize a space’s profitability can sometimes stifle architects’ creativity. But this occasional hurdle can’t account for an international trend. What we’re seeing is an intentional approach. It’s why the back of Brooklyn’s Myrtle Hall (2011) resembles the front of the Charles River Community Health building (2015) in Brighton, or why the Victor luxury apartments (2015) in Boston’s West End are comparable to Washington, D.C.’s Elevation luxury apartments (2014). It’s also why the modern addition to the Genzyme Corporation’s Allston plant (2010) follows the same principles as that of the Union of Romanian Architects headquarters (2003).

The trouble with all of this is that when you’ve got ubiquitous designs everywhere, the local character of specific sites, towns, and cities is lost. No amount of academic jargon or citations of the employed architect’s credentials can counteract the actual experience of seeing and walking through the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new wing and realizing that it has very little to do with the original quirky and bricolage-like building. The same is true for the aforementioned Genzyme plant. Its original building, completed in 1996, is a modern echoing of the factory across the Charles River, and more generally of Romanesque industrial buildings from the late 19th century. Symbolically relevant to its purpose, environmentally contextual, and offering volume and variety in its architectural forms, it is everything the 2010 expansion — yet another nondescript cluster of gridded glass cubes — is not (especially bizarre, considering that Architectural Resources Cambridge is responsible for both buildings).

But when all is said and done, what concerns me most is not how precisely a building communicates its purpose; it’s what sorts of visual delights it offers. And in that sense, almost all of Boston’s new architecture falls flat. Our journalism has often failed us, too, by describing new buildings quantitatively rather than qualitatively as well. Or, nothing is said at all. As one of the city’s most significant ongoing events, the development boom should be near the top of frequently covered topics. This lackluster reporting has the negative double effect of keeping architecture a matter of the elites and academics, and contributing to the sense that the discipline is akin to a practical science, reducible to room-count, materials, and estimated cost. I’ll more thoroughly discuss these qualitative aspects in this article’s second half. Other subtopics will include green/sustainable architecture and its utopian implications, what this obsession with luxury apartments and condos means, the complexities of the public’s involvement with city growth, and whom Boston’s new architecture really is for.

Ario Elami can be contacted on Twitter.

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