Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Globe gets ugly

There seems to be a kind of small-scale panic going on over at the Globe these days regarding Boston's brutalist architecture. A few weeks back someone named Sarah Schweitzer published a kind of ode to the city's ugliest buildings in the Globe magazine; then Robert Campbell, long a champion of the blight his alma mater (Harvard) has inflicted on the local landscape, penned a similar paean here. Both argued that majority opinion on these concrete dinosaurs was about to change. I demolished their arguments (if not, alas, the actual buildings) here.

Last week, Campbell revealed what may be the source of the panic: a British city has chosen a postmodern structure to raze, based on a country-wide popular vote. (And that building, though no looker, is merely mediocre; it's hardly as hideous as Boston City Hall.) Egad, Muffy! "Taking architectural criticism to an extreme, a British city plans to tear down a building because it’s too ugly," Campbell sputtered; fancy that - the masses are revolting, without any guidance from the tastemakers! But like many a clever Harvard man, Campbell knew better than to actually oppose the oncoming mob with their torches and pitchforks; instead, he re-directed them to other local architectural atrocities: the South Station Postal Annex (yikes!), and the Government Center Garage (aargh!).

Now no one could deny these give Boston City Hall more than a run for its money in the Ugly Betty Architectural Sweepstakes; at the same time, however, it's hard to imagine public anger building toward them because one is tucked away in what amounts to an industrial zone, and the other is - well, a parking garage. We don't hold warehouses and garages to the same standards we expect of public monuments.

What Campbell and Schweitzer really can't face is that the dislike of this kind of modern architecture isn't a "fashion," as they claim - instead, they are the ones in the sway of fashion, albeit a fifty-year-old fashion. They both operate in a nostalgic mode which has long been set for them in aesthetic stone (or maybe concrete); they can't see the objects of their affection for what they are - a response to a singular set of political circumstances which have long since vanished and aren't coming back any time soon. We don't have to live in bombed-out fortresses anymore, as if we'd survived Dresden, nor do we have to continue to pretend that industrial design represents "progress." Hard as it is to accept, these ideas were fashions that always mapped to intellectual fantasy more than urban reality.

Campbell and Schweitzer may have a point in keeping the highest iterations of the form, like Peabody Terrace, which is at least thoughtfully wrought, and (better yet) leaves a small footprint. But gigantic, sprawling dinosaurs like Boston City Hall? I'd say it's time for the wrecking ball - my only qualm comes from the sense that we're unlikely to do better, and may do worse, in replacing it. Indeed, what I think Campbell is particularly blind to is the one fact of Boston architecture that's evident all around us - up until about the 1920's, Boston's urban fabric more than cohered; it was remarkably vibrant, and studded with small masterpieces. Then for some reason, the city lost its architectural mojo mid-century, and nothing's been the same since. The question is why.