Recently when long-time friends, all Bostonians, gathered for dinner, a question was posed: What are the best buildings built in Boston in the last 50 years?
Everyone had a hard time coming up with an answer. Three were acknowledged to be okay—the John Hancock Tower, the Federal Reserve Bank and Rowe’s Wharf.
But the buildings that were considered awful were numerous. Anything by Philip Johnson was judged an insult to the city. The “pregnant” old First National Bank of Boston building was among the disliked. Harbor Towers? Awful, although that duo got credit for bringing people to the waterfront at a time when no one wanted to be there. Three of the friends had worked in Boston City Hall, but no one liked it. Nor did they like its neighbor, the JFK Building, which actually seems an insult to that man.
It didn’t matter whether the buildings were high- or low-rise. We couldn’t think of many good ones.
The friends were also critical of buildings being built now, especially in the Seaport District. All of them are the same—squat boxes filling up blocks too long with undistinguished design. There is little variation in style, materials or height.
There wasn’t much love either for the buildings being built now or those that should break ground soon elsewhere in the city.
So what makes us love a building?
It helps if it solves a problem. HYM Investment Group’s project at the Government Center Garage will get rid of a Brutalist eyesore, uncover a street and contribute to the edge of the Greenway.
Millennium’s project at Filene’s will preserve the old Filene’s façade and fill in the hole created by the demolition of that sorry mid-century addition to the old building.
John Rosenthal’s Fenway Center will cover the Mass Pike, an outcome that has been hard to achieve since Copley Place was built about 30 years ago.
Real estate developers and city officials always tout how many construction jobs a project will create. That’s good too.
But soon the number of jobs created and the problem a building solved is forgotten. Then it has to stand on its own.
Usually new buildings stand tall. Regular readers of this column will remember I am not antagonistic toward height. The neighborhood groups that persuade a developer to lower the height so a swath of land gets 10 minutes more sunlight on October 23 don’t seem to me to have gained much.
It is more important to concentrate on what a building looks like from far away, what it contributes to the skyline, and how it enlivens and enhances the street.
I have seen cities that look great from far away. San Diego displays a rainbow of color if you’re on a boat in the harbor or a passenger in a landing plane. Panama City gleams white, appropriate in a tropical country. New York wins hands down for the best skyline. The reason is in its older buildings—the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building and now the “Freedom” Tower—that have beautiful, pointy tops.
The buildings in the works now are not going to help with how the city’s buildings look from far away, nor will their tops contribute to the skyline. When the new buildings are complete, we’re still going to look like Hartford. (Sorry, Hartford.)
One has more hope for how the new buildings will enhance the street, but so far there doesn’t seem to be much new there either.
It seemed like a novel idea when Don Chiofaro put tables and chairs on the small plaza outside International Place, and, in fact those tables are filled with people at many hours of the day in nice weather and lay an atmosphere of conviviality over the corner of High and Oliver streets.
Restaurants continue to be a good idea for the ground floor of big buildings and so do retail shops, especially if they are divided into small spaces with many doorways and a varied streetwall so a passer-by doesn’t feel as if he’s next to a long blank wall.
But the city would benefit from more imagination here. Chiofaro at one point considered a canal along a building he wants to build on the harbor, although I’m not sure that idea is still viable. But that’s imagination. Chiofaro also has installed a small museum in his harborside garage building, a use that nicely expands from retail.
But surely there are additional ideas that would bring a little magic to a building that could help make it loved. For example, I’d like to see arcades lined with small shops connecting blocks through the middle of buildings. Such arcades in London and Paris are charming and successful and break up the monolithic nature of big buildings. Artwork or imaginative historic plaques embedded in the façade of a building or its sidewalks are also welcome. Think of the Boston Bricks bronze inlays on Winthrop Lane or the Boston Public School mosaic on School Street.
But I’m a columnist. My imagination is usually limited to telling other people’s stories. Builders in our city need to expand the possibilities for our delight if they want their buildings to be loved.