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Preserving modernism in Boston: making the case

Posted by Anthony Flint  July 22, 2010 05:29 PM

Historic preservation around these parts has always had to do with red bricks, colonial or Victorian era sites. But a new campaign underway in Boston puts a new twist on honoring the more recent past --- the celebration of modern architecture: Boston City Hall and the Hurley Building as part of Government Center, Harvard's Peabody Terrace and Holyoke, the Boston University Law School ...

BU Law School.jpg

... and the Blue Cross/Blue Shield building downtown, and many other examples of this distinctive period of archictecture and urban design.

Blue Cross Blue Shield building.jpg

It's an effort rife with irony and contradiction. Many of the structures were part of the era of urban renewal -- which of course gave rise to the full-throttle historic preservation movement in this country in the first place, as activists fought against the razing of Penn Station and the destruction of the West End and Robert Moses' plans to run an expressway through the cast-iron facade buildings of Broome Street in SoHo. But now that a half-century has passed, preservationists are saying that the products of urban renewal are themselves worthy of protection.

The idea takes some convincing not only among those in historic preservation but mostly the public. In many cases these are buildings that are hard to love. The Federal Reserve building (Stubbins Associates, 1977) is known around town as the "refrigerator building."

Federal Reserve.jpg

The Government Service Center (Paul Rudolph, 1971), with its combed concrete and urbanism-deadening blank walls, is a controversial experiment in Brutalism. "Dynamite would be too kind for this monstrosity, which would be far better suited as the headquarters of the KGB circa 1965 than a building in the cradle of American liberty," says Universal Hub .

And yet, there are surely ways to integrate the complex with the urban fabric, and preservationists urge a second look -- the sculptural bravado, the heroically scaled passageways, the hidden courtyards. And check out one playful element of what appears to be a sort of concrete monster face on the facade; once you notice it you can never look at the building quite the same way again.

Government Service Center.jpg

It's important to note the better-regarded modernism classics around the Boston area. Nobody would think of tearing down Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center on Quincy Street in Cambridge ...

Thumbnail image for Carpenter Fixler.jpg

... or Baker House or Kresge Auditorium at MIT, or indeed the Gropius House in Lincoln or the Six Moon Hill community in Lexington.

But some other structures are indeed under threat -- Boston City Hall (Kallmannn, McKinnell and Knowles, 1968) being the leading example.


Urban renewal of urban renewal as long been on the drafting table for the John F. Kennedy federal office building and the Hurley/Government Service Center complex. Modernist buildings are increasingly expensive to maintain and could be lucrative to replace.

Some interesting arguments come into play -- the embodied energy in the structures, or whether renovation and modification is historically appropriate, the Christian Science Center complex being a major case study. I had the pleasure of moderating "Boston Modern: The Spirit of Reinvention," June 30th at Rudolph's First Church of Boston on Marlborough Street, itself a modernist icon, with Charles Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, Susan Macdonald from the Getty Conservation Institute, Harvard University's Kathy Spiegelman, and David N. Fixler, principal at EYP Architecture & Engineering, and part of DOCOMOMO-U.S./New England (the Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the Modern Movement). The consensus was that we should think long and hard before eradicating a layer of architectural history. A lot of Victorian structures were deemed ugly in the 1950s and torn down.

"If there are choices about what to save, perhaps we should err on the side of inclusiveness and entertain innovative options for reuse," said Christine Madrid French, director of the Modernism + Recent Past Program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation . "By thinking creatively, communities can incorporate old buildings into new plans, and manage existing resources in sustainable terms. The focus is on saving remarkable designs and innovative craftsmanship, but within that context, we also want to save stories, about the architects, the city, and the community."

Says David Eisen, principal at Abacus Architects + Planners, who put together a wonderful booklet on modernism treasures around Boston: "The concrete structures of 1960s and 70s are as true to their time as Faneuil Hall, the State House, and Trinity Church were to theirs, and have a sculptural power that is absolutely their equal. Like the ambitious architecture of most any era they will go in and out of fashion as the city and society continue to evolve. But the best of this work is as worthy of appreciation - and preservation - as that of any other period in history."

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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About the author

Anthony Flint is a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on More »

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