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Architecture

ICA's new space is honored as a work of art

Architects' society awards medal to the museum

Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / January 6, 2008

This is the season for giving presents. Architects love to give each other presents. These take the form of prizes for good design.

Do lawyers do this? Is there an award for the most elegantly argued brief of the year? Doctors? A medal for the most artistic appendectomy?

Unlike those other professionals, architects think of their profession as one of the fine arts. A great building, they believe -like a great novel or film - is a work of art and deserves the same kind of public recognition.

Boston is unique among American cities in that it's been presenting a prize for the best building of the year since 1923. It's called the Parker Medal and was initiated by an architect named J. Harleston Parker.

The medal is administered by the Boston Society of Architects, which each year appoints a new jury, of architects plus some others, to choose what Parker defined as "the most beautiful piece of architecture, building, monument or structure within the limits of the City of Boston or of the Metropolitan Parks District."

The list of winners down through the decades, many of them now either more obscure or less beloved than they once were, is a marvelous index of changing tastes. The Motor Mart Garage in Park Square (1927)? St. Clement's Church, in Somerville (1946)? Boston City Hall (1969)?

This year's Parker Medalist is the Institute of Contemporary Art, on the South Boston waterfront. No surprise here, since the ICA is probably the most praised new Boston building in years. The architects are the New York firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with local associates Perry Dean Rogers.

But if the ICA is no surprise, it's still interesting to read the comments of this year's jury. They didn't always agree.

"The decision to recommend the ICA for this award was a polarizing one for the committee," says the report. "The dissenting voices found the building to be an unnecessarily showy effort that happened to benefit from a beautiful site. The galleries, which were purposely understated to avoid competition with the art, were perceived by some jurors as lost opportunities."

But the majority ruled: "The architects and the client understood that the function and meaning of museums require re-examination. . . . Until recently, the museum, as a building type, was a civic but introverted warehouse for viewing art. At the ICA, the architect/client team created a building that feels like a cultural and educational center, open and welcome to the public."

That's the best thing about awards of this kind. They jar us into thinking about what we like and why we like it. Or what we don't like.

There were four runners-up for the Parker:

The Springstep Center for Dance, in Medford (Andrew Cohen Architects). Disagreement again: "Some jurors praised the project enthusiastically and others found the style derivative rather than inventive." Dissenters argued that the big picture window, intended to offer the public a view of activities inside, frames only the parking lot when seen from within.

Arnold Arboretum Classroom and Shrub and Vine Collection (Maryann Thompson Architects with Reed Hilderbrand as landscape architects). "A place of repose and education where a light wood and steel-framed pavilion rises from an elegant system of stone garden walls and terraced parterres. . .. Vines are displayed . . . as art would be in a gallery."

Stata Center, at MIT (Frank Gehry Partners with Cannon Design). The jury is chilly to say the least on Frank Gehry's crazily inventive lab building, which is designed to look, in places, as if it's on the brink of toppling over: "Ultimately, this was not in our view a strong contender for the award." (Perhaps agreeing with the jury, MIT is now suing both the architect and the builder for alleged construction flaws.)

Leonard Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge (Christian Menn, engineer). "Becoming a Boston icon," write the jurors. But they agree with this critic that the bridge's twin towers, with are shaped to imitate the top of the Bunker Hill Monument, "diminish the effect of both the monument and the bridge."

Besides the Parker Medal, the Boston Society of Architects named other winners in various categories. The highest are called Honor Awards, given for buildings that can be located anywhere as long as they're designed by Boston-area architects.

The jury here consisted of three architects from other parts of the United States. They picked only five buildings for Honor Awards. They write that they found Boston architecture rather conservative (no surprise there), but also notably competent. "We found no new style trends upon which to remark," they say, and then conclude: "Even relatively safe design can be both eloquent and seductive."

The winners, all from Boston or Cambridge:

Brian Healy, for a recital hall shoehorned into a former carriage house at Brown University.

Machado and Silvetti, for the renovation and expansion of the Getty Villa museum in Los Angeles. (Architecture is always collaborative, but this one is amazing. The architects list, by name, 75 employees who worked on the Getty project over a period of years.)

The firm Payette, for a lab and museum building for the earth sciences at Amherst College.

Maryann Thompson, for a riverfront house in a large meadow in Westport, Massachusetts.

Elizabeth Whittaker (now MergeArchitects), for a Newton Center nail salon interior -Miniluxe - that morphs into a lounge and party venue in the evenings.

The jurors complain, in their report, that they didn't see much interest in sustainability - so-called green architecture - in the buildings they were asked to review, or much low-budget work, or much work by younger, edgier designers.

Those are qualities it would be nice to find when prize time rolls around again next year.

Robert Campbell is the Globe's architecture critic. He can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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