Sunday, January 3, 2010

When he says "heroic," he means "Harvard"

Gund Hall at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Pity poor Robert Campbell, the Globe's architecture critic: he loves what everybody else hates - Boston's brutalist buildings of the 60's and 70's; one building he constantly defends, in fact, is Boston City Hall, recently voted the ugliest building in the whole world.

So I feel for him; it takes guts being a critic, but more guts when everyone disagrees with you, and even more guts when your taste becomes the butt of Internet jokes. I can't imagine what that's like, frankly, because my critical record is so strong by comparison; what I predict will be hits generally turn out to be hits; the actors and singers I support inevitably go on to major careers, and when I'm controversial, slowly but surely the tide almost always turns my way. Campbell, by way of contrast, is pretty much up shit creek without a paddle, popular-taste-wise. Still he soldiers on, God bless 'im.

Then again, he's sustained by a funny secret - in fact it's the secret behind almost all the modern architecture in Boston that he loves. Oh, I suppose it's not really a secret, it's more like a link. A little link he never mentions.

But I will.

Robert Campbell graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the early 70's (after going to Harvard College). That's the GSD, as it's known, up above. Now think for a moment - do you notice any strange similarities between that building and Campbell's darling, Boston City Hall?

But wait - while you mull that over, also ponder Campbell's column in last weekend's Globe, "The Beauty of Concrete," in which he reviews yet again his favorite brutalist Boston monuments. Indeed, he cites the concrete buildings in Boston that are of particular interest:

"Carpenter Center at Harvard, by famed French architect Le Corbusier; the Christian Science Center, by I.M. Pei and Araldo Cossutta; Boston City Hall, by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles; the Design Research store in Cambridge by Benjamin Thompson; the State Services complex on Cambridge Street by Paul Rudolph; a series of buildings at Harvard by Josep LluĂ­s Sert, including the Holyoke Center; and a series at MIT by Pei, including the Green Earth Sciences tower."

Taken together, Campbell says, these buildings constitute "a Boston Age of Concrete." He even adds, "It’s time we began to accept it as one of the historic periods of local architecture, just like Colonial or Victorian."

Okay, but quick question - which of these buildings was not designed by an architect associated with Harvard?

That's right - just one, the Carpenter Center, by Le Corbusier (that's Charles-Edouard Jeanneret to you) - only it was built at Harvard anyway, as a kind of emblem of the house style! Just about every other architect in that list - Pei, Kallmann, McKinnel, Cossutta, Rudolph, Thompson, Sert - was either educated at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, or taught there, or was educated there and subsequently taught there. (The only one I'm not sure about is Knowles.) Some of them I'm sure taught Campbell. They're all the generation that rose under the tutelage of Walter Gropius (except for Thompson, who I think went to Yale, but went into business with Gropius instead).

Yet for some reason Campbell doesn't mention any of that in his article. And wait, there are even more unspoken Harvard connections to come.

Campbell says that his reason for reconsidering the "Boston Age of Concrete" is that "a bunch of young architects in Boston are singing the praises" of these buildings. "They call it the “heroic’’ period of Boston architecture," he explains.

Wow, a sudden groundswell in contrarian opinion, you say? Well, not really. Because who are these architects "in their late 30s . . associated with a gallery in the South End called pinkcomma"? Why, they're Mark Pasnik, Chris Grimley, and Michael Kubo - and they don't just run some artfag hangout in the South End, they went to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, too. (Surprise!) Oh, except for Chris Grimley, who worked for Jorge Silvetti, who teaches at . . . well, you get the idea by now.

Funny that Campbell doesn't mention any of these connections. Maybe he doesn't because it might sound a bit odd trumpeting that "young Harvard architects are calling older Harvard architects heroic!" Not really enough to hang an article on, is it . . . but if you shave off all the relevant details, suddenly you can pretend that, as Campbell puts it, brutalism may, like other styles, "have a funny way of coming back into fashion after a period of neglect." Yeah, maybe, but don't hold your breath, Bob.

At any rate, the unmentioned point of the article is that Campbell isn't praising "Boston" architecture, he's praising Harvard architecture - he wants the Harvard Age of Concrete preserved. Trust me, if Gropius had taught them to build with Lincoln Logs at the GSD, these days Campbell would be singing the praises of Lincoln Logs. And it's worth pondering, isn't it, that not only so much of the most hated architecture in Boston should have been built by Harvard architects, but that the Globe should have kept the whole architectural game "in the family" by hiring another Harvard architect to "critique" his teachers and classmates. Or write about how still more Harvard architects are chatting up Harvard architects. Yes, it's all very cozy here in the Athens of America, ain't it.

The deeper point, however, is that Bostonians need to begin to think of these buildings as essentially academic architecture. That's why they're so cut off from their city, and why their city hates them so much - they were imposed on the urban fabric by a university up the river, that had decided to import a foreign dean. True, modernism wasn't confined to Harvard, or even just the Ivy League (Pei also went to MIT, my alma mater), but Campbell's suite of buildings do seem to share a formal language that either emanated from, or ended up in, the GSD. They're not so much "Boston architecture" as "GSD architecture" - or maybe "Ivy League Modernism."

Of course to be honest, there is one very good reason to preserve GSD architecture - the simple fact that if we tear it down, it will most likely be replaced by more GSD architecture. Since the connection has been permanently cut between the city and what's built for it, it's almost impossible to imagine another Boston vernacular rising from the ashes of the "Age of Concrete."

But to those of you who think there's nothing wrong with Harvard telling us what our buildings should look like (and then critiquing them as well), or what our theatre should be like, or, as Marjorie Garber would have it, producing our art for us - take a look at Boston City Hall. And look hard. We've already seen what happens when universities produce our culture. And it isn't pretty.

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