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Downtown View: Good Skyscrapers

A mark of a true Bostonian is to hate skyscrapers.

Nevertheless, we’re going to get a passel of new tall buildings soon. Steve Belkin’s revelation that he wants to build 740 feet of steel and glass on Federal Street is the tallest. But the Christian Science tower is approved at 699 feet. Millennium Partners’ tower at 625 feet is underway next to Filene’s. Copley Place is approved at 625 feet too. The tallest building at North Station is approved at 600 feet, the same height as Don Chiofaro’s Harbor Garage proposal.

These buildings make Tom O’Brien’s approved 528-foot project at the Government Center Garage seem like the little brother.

Opposition comes from homeowners whose living spaces are valuable for the same reason skyscrapers must be built. Land in downtown Boston is costly. Since it looks as if we’re going to live with these buildings, it might be time to consider what makes a good skyscraper anyway.

Architect Louis Sullivan, often called the ‘father of the skyscraper,’ was born in Boston. Maybe he left because he saw little future here for his soaring plans.

But he considered the question in the late 1800s, after the inventions of the elevator and steel skeleton framing made skyscrapers possible. The elevator meant that people could reach top floors without wearing themselves out. Steel frames made thick load-bearing walls unnecessary. The term ‘skyscraper’ may have been copied from the name of a top mast of a sailing ship.

Sullivan described his ideal skyscraper. “It is lofty,” he wrote. “It must be tall . . . the force and power of altitude . . . a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.” I guess he meant a skyscraper should be tall.

Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker magazine where he praised the new World Trade Center, was more articulate. “Skyscrapers, to be successful, should be . . . exuberant; the genius of the form is that hyper-scale should be met by unexpected playfulness, as with the arches and gargoyles of the Chrysler Building. There are no good dull skyscrapers . . .”

Unfortunately, Boston skyscrapers are mostly dull. Take One Beacon Street. Nothing playful anywhere. Not as bad as One Financial Center, you say? The list goes on.

The Palladian windows on International Place are playful, but they didn’t go over well in strait-laced Boston. The Federal Reserve building might meet Gopnik’s criterion because its skin and design reminds us of a vault. The Hancock building, for all its boring glass, has surprises. It looks one-dimensional from the Southeast Expressway, shows off a shining ribbon when one views it at sunset from Storrow Drive, and reflects Trinity Church and Fenway Park, depending on the viewpoint.

Since the Boston Redevelopment Authority has to approve all skyscrapers, I asked Kairos Shen, the BRA’s planning director, what he looks for in a tall building.

“The important thing is how the skyscraper meets the ground,” he said. “A base that comes up to the street is more connected to the street pattern and the fabric of the city.”

Planners learned that lesson the hard way when they first gave people open space around tall buildings, Shen said. This pattern isolated the buildings from the street and caused wind tunnels. The Prudential Building, Boston’s first 1960s skyscraper, epitomized that concept, and we’ve spent 30 years filling in its plaza to make it part of the city.

Buildings’ courtyards and lobbies should be permeable, inviting the public in and enabling pedestrians to get out of the cold, said Shen. Restaurant and retail uses have become a cliché, but they bring human scale and visual interest at ground level.

Shen also considers the proportion of buildings 400 feet or more. Today’s designs are slender, he said. It is a counterpoint to old Boston, mostly horizontal and wide.

Shen said he looks at how buildings perform as a group and how they will compliment adjacent buildings. He is pleased that new Back Bay skyscrapers will fill in holes between the Hancock and the Pru. This will be especially noticeable from I-93 north of the city. They will contribute to the “high spine” that Boston planners envisioned decades ago, and still seems like a good idea, since, in theory, some would cover the Mass Pike.

An important concern for me is how a tall building meets the sky. I’ve been disappointed with the new designs because I think the flat tops make our skyline look like Hartford. (Sorry, Hartford.)

Shen said how a top expresses itself is sometimes in conflict with his goal of having buildings viewed in groups and not making one stand out more than its neighbors. He prefers to consider the profile of the whole building, as it might express itself as a spiral or a trapezoid.

I now understand why the BRA doesn’t emphasize tops, but Shen has not convinced me. Profiles are trendy. Copy-cat architects strive for them today. I tried to convince him that tops are as important to a skyline as groups. (Think Empire State.) Shen called my tops “hats” and “flourishes.” I don’t think I convinced him of my point of view.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at