I M Pei’s Noble Boston

These online colums in Boston/New England studies,  always sourced but never peer reviewed,  began on WGBH,  Boston’s PBS outlet on Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’Clock News,  moved in the 1990’s to the Boston Phoenix as  “Skyline”  (named by editor Peter Kadzis)  and appear now on the BBH website,  modeled on the Center for History and New Media blogs at George Mason University.    This column is published to coincide with the September 18th opening of HEROIC,  an exhibition at the PinkComma Gallery in Boston’s South End.  That gallery’s inaugural show,  “Rethinking Boston City Hall”,  was quite well received,  as was their  “Hanging Green”  at the time of the American Institute of Architects  convention in Boston.  Also of interest in this connection is the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 1957-1960.

BOSTON HAS BEEN MODERN MANY TIMES.  In any survey of  the history of architecture from ancient Greece onwards — that of the British scholar David Watkin, for example —  the spotlight swivels to Boston a half a doen times to demand illustration: first, in the early 1700s, to Peter Harrison’s King’s Chapel  then to Charles Bulfinch’s New State House in the late 1700s  thereafter to those two Copley Square icons of Richardson’s Trinity and McKim’s Public Library; and finally to Alvar Aalto’s 20th-century Baker  House in Cambridgeport.

Talk instead of global architecture today,   as in my friend and colleague Mark Jarzombek’s brilliant new textbook in that  field,  and three of Watkin’s Boston landmark’s particularly spark today’s global laser,   one of which,  I’m sorry to say,  is not Baker House,  the only modernist work on  Watkin’s list,  an instance in my view where the true world view is found in what at first glance can seem to be a narrower than global  (in fact, only a western)   perspective,  but one which does not  lose track of Baker House.

Does this mean Boston has been modern,  so to speak,  only three times?  Modern is a fraught word of many meanings.  New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger puts it this way:  in America  “the models for everything are in Boston”.  A good example,  not from any of the ‘golden ages’ cited here,  is given in Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s 19th- and 20th-century architecture volume in the Pelican History of Art,  where even in so large a frame, Hitchcock observes that  “Arthur Gilman’s Boston City Hall [of 1862] set off a national programme of public buildings in the [French] Second Empire mode”,  adding in his discussion of Boston’s own Back Bay that although  “the considerable originality of the mode as it was actually employed”  there was  “largely unconscious”,  the ensuing “Second Empire episode in the United States…was a consciously ‘modern’ movement,  deriving its prestige from contemporary Paris,  not from any period in the past”.  The result,  of course,  was what critic Lewis Mumford called  “aside from L’Enfant’s plan for Washington…the outstanding achievement in America in urban planning for the 19th-century”.

A hundred years later  Boston was modern in a very different way.  Not a case of Boston inspired by Paris to lead the United States, in the 1960s,   as another Times architecture critic,  Ada Louise Huxtable,  remarked,  it was a case of everyone everywhere hearing what Huxtable calls Boston’s  “architectural shot heard round the world .”   She continues:  “Bostonians espoused modernism early and with characteristic intellectual conviction.  Boston played a leading role in the practice and disemination of a movement that changed the face of the twentieth century.”

The Boston Huxtable writes about is the Boston of the Brahmin intellectual elite:  The Providence, Rhode Island,  Browns,  for instance,  whose Boston town house was on Commonwealth Avenue.  There it was that  John Nicholas Brown designed what he was sure was the first ‘modern’ room in New England  not very many years before he commissioned the pioneering modernist Richard Neutra to design for the Brown’s his first house on the East Coast,  thus  confirming Ralph Adams Cram’s prediction that “modern art is sponsored by the Brahmins…It will go over the top”.

Another  great Brahmin patron presented Walter Gropius with the land in suburban Boston on which he famously built his house in the late 1930s,  the first volley of Huxtable’s firepower,  which she carefully detailed,  from  “the familiar icons of the  first generation….the tradition-shattering houses of the 1930s by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer,  Alvar Aalto’s 1947 Baker house dormitory at MIT,  Eero Saarinen’s 1955 MIT Chapel [and] LeCorbusier’s 1960-1963 Carpenter Center at Harvard”  to the  “second generation of the 1960s work that includes Kallmann,  McKinnell and Knowles’s competition-winning Boston City Hall,   Phillips Johnson’s and John Burgee’s  Boston Public Library….and the design of I. M. Pei’s and Henry Cobb’s  John Hancock Building.”  Finally,  she concludes:  the academic elite  trumped the social elite —  “Boston’s great educational institutions,  Harvard and MIT,  were the real creucible in which American modern architecture was formed.”

As historian William J. R. Curtis has pointed out,  there was some movement from west to east — the work in the Mid-West of Wright and Saarinen and on the West Coast of Schindler and Neutra,  but Huxtable was right that  it was primarily the  “eastern establishment”  that  carried the ball for architectural modernism and insured its success.  Moreover,  as Curtis himself points out,  it was to Boston chiefly after the Second World War that a new generation of young Americans flocked to sit at the feet of Gropius.  Among the half dozen or so Curtis mentions was  young Pei.

A certain native genuis in Bostonian climes was not entirely wanting at the dawn of Modernism in America.  In  1954,  the Boston-based firm of Richardson’s successor architects,  Shepley,  Bulfinch,  Richardson and Abbott,  designed the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge in the Back Bay,  a swirl of curvilinear reinforced-concrete magnificently flung across Storrow Drive at Beacon and Arlington Streets with a verve more than equal to Saarinen’s MIT Chapel of the following year.

However,  as Harvard’s John Coolidge,   my old teacher and mentor,  a legendary modernist of the most critical,  hard-headed sort,   pointed out,  it was a distinctive trait of Boston — wanting always the best of everything —  to  “import [architects] or their designs” from Peter Harrison to Charles McKim to Alvar Aalto and LeCorbusier,  and the result was,   Coolidge wrote in 1977,  that  “in one day”  one could see  by that year in and around Boston’s core city a collection of Modernist architecture by great masters  hard to rival anywhere else in the world.”   To which it is perhaps only necessary to add Margaret Henderson Floyd’s observation that  “Pei’s influence [would be] as great in twentieth-century Boston  as that of Bulfinch in earlier times.”

Boston has not only been modern many times,  but in many different ways.

IMAGES  OF  MODERNITY

It is often said that Bulfinch at the end of the 18th-century and the first years of the 19th transformed Boston into a city of stone and brick.  Pei in the 20th-century found it still so ,  but transformed it into a city,  yes,  of  glass and steel,   but overwhelmingly of architectural  concrete, which suited the high Modernist way with architecture in the 1960s,  which was heroic,   romantic  and  ennobling.



Oddly perhaps,  I know this,  or at least I think I do,  because  of Harvard Stadium,  which I first encountered as a boy on weekend automobile trips.  My father’s family lived in the Old Cambridge neighborhood of Boston (around Harvard Yard) and my mother’s in Dorchester,  a neighborhood in quite a different direction,  and our summer home,  to which we  seemed always to be either coming  from or going to,   was in the coastal and now suburban town of Marshfield,  all of which made for very round-about  perigrinations.  And after the Cambridge stop we would invariably head  for Storrow Drive and almost at once — there was the stadium,  which so captured my boyhood imagination.  It was surely my first coinsideration of architecture,   all unknowing,  that  being a very big word for a child of seven or eight.

For me,  as I recall gazing out the car window,  the stadium seemed to ride the greensward of Soldiers Field with all the grandeur that was Rome,  like a great  leviathan — the result,  I suppose,  of the effect of the moving car I was in.  I’m sure I thought I was looking at the Roman Colosseum.   Bold,  massive,  arch after graceful arch marching along in exposed concrete splendor to some victory or another I could feel in my bones,  Harvard Stadium has,  unlike many boyhood memories,  gotten even better in adulthood.

Now I know that this landmark which won my heart so early in  life is,  historically,  hardly less remarkable for its time and place  — it was erected in 1903 –than was the Roman Colosseum in its day,   for Harvard Stadium is the first,  as when it was built it was the largest,  of all the massive reinforced concrete structures of the world.


I know too from his published recollections that another boy in another generation,  he young when the stadium also was young,  was also fascinated by it –  no less than Buckminster Fuller.  That first  and always quite distinctive  of Boston’s Modernists  remembered being in the stadium for the  first Yale game played there.  Eighty years later he remembered  “the smell [of]  its new concrete”,  comparing it to  the smell of another pioneering Boston landmark of the time,  America’s first subway,  that smell both above and below ground having come in his mind to  stand for the  “environmental smell at the portals of a new age into which we were all entering”.  Clearly,  for Fuller as for me,  Harvard Stadium was not one of life’s disappointments.


In my case,  only a handful of landmarks have bested it since,  and two of those,  the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington and the Hancock Tower in Boston,  have been by Pei.  Not in either case concrete obviously,  but in every sense heroic,  one of several exceptions to the ideal  I more and more see it  worth  studying  —  Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre is another  —   since clearly what is controlling for me is my lust for form and my consequent admiration for architects who are form-givers.  Like Louis Sullivan ,  dazzled by Richardson’s Brattle  Church tower,    created ,  he was sure,  for “his special delight”,  I too am sure whatever I like was put there just for me.

Consider,  for instance,  my latest architectural enthusiasm,  a particular walk —  up Marlborough Street from Arlington to Clarendon —  I seize every opportunity to take.


It begins with a nice Art Deco town garden,  continues past  a great number of Victorian and Edwardian town houses,   offering many small delights:  the superbly carved Corinthian capitals of one house,  the elegant modernist cut-out windows (almost like a bar code) in the salmon brick facade of Pietro Belluschi’s First Lutheran Church.   A nearby garden rejoices in a fountain midst the topiary.  There is the lovely distraction of Ware and Van Brunt’s pastoral Gothic tower at the corner of Berkeley Street,  and the drama of Paul Rudolph’s striking Modernist addition adjoining.  John Winthrop keeps watch in bronze.

Beyond are more town houses.  And then,  at the corner of Clarendon,  as I turn left toward Commonwealth Avenue,  there is the frisson for which I wait — the Hancock Tower —  tower scintilating in sun, or,  mayhap,  a pewter ghost in winter snow — tower foregrounded,  not by Trinity’s tower,  but by Richardson’s greatest church tower,  which won him fame the world over:  the Brattle   tower —  named by Boston’s Dantist’s Il Campanile degli Angeli —  the Tower of the Angels,  which led to the commission for Trinity.  Masterwork speaks to masterwork.  And once, when there happened to be a rainbow reflected in the Hancock,  I had to sit down on a park bench on Commonwealth Avenue to calm down.  I am ashamed to say,  not content with God’s moment,  I took a photograph.


This is when I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a young architectural student at MIT in the 1870s stunned as Louis Sullivan,  the father of  Modern architecture in America,  was by Richardson’s tower,  as much as a student of mine might still be by the Hancock.  Standing as I often do where the only man who Frank Lloyd Wright ever called master first saw the Brattle Church at the dawn of his career,  I recall too that a half century and more later,  in the 1930s,  another young architectural student,   Pei,  studying architecture in the same MIT building as Sullivan had,  described as  “the two most important days of my professional life”  when LeCorbusier himself  appeared in Copley Square,  and young Pei in turn sat  at this new master’s feet.

This is rich,  densely layered history,  the kind  one finds only in great centers of civilization.  And if the Hancock Tower is just a little less for me these days what Eero Saarinen  (in his case speaking of his latest design)  used to call  “the loved one”,  I have to add I also see in my  admiring mind’s eye Pei’s own original Hancock design,  before Henry Cobb became lead designer for that project.  The slanted,  flattened glassy facade towards Trinity comes from that original design,  set somewhat  back by Pei into  a huge concrete cylinder that would also have been a powerful design,  though in this case I still think I prefer Cobb’s  solution.

What all this reflects is that I have been for a year or two much influenced by a point of view,  implied in the work of Curtis,  a scholar I greatly respect,  that has lately been put very forcefully to me by a friend,  Tad Stahl  (that’s Frederick A.  Stahl,   Fellow of the American In stitute of Architects and founder of the Boston firm that bore his name,  now executive architect at Burt Hill in Boston)  that while glass,  like brick,  is not to be disdained — my favorite of Stahl’s buildings,  his addition to the Park Street Church in Boston,  is brick — only stone and steel and concrete are what Stahl calls  “noble”  architectural  materials;  concrete perhaps noblest of all.

“Reinforced concrete is innately an architectural medium,  a complete building system.  Steel is innately a structural medium,  almost invariably requiring its own enclosure to function in conjunction with architecture, ” declared Stahl at a recent MIT symposium on the subject of concrete architecture.  Of his own work in Boston in and around the 1960s — his best known building is the 34 story original State Street Bank tower at 225 Franklin Street —  Stahl adds:  “Many of my generation of Boston architects were eager to express the possibilities of concrete….[Jose Luis] Sert had created an integrated urban concept with the Holyoke Center in Harvard Square —  sophisticated urban planning and a domesticated language of design in concrete . I. M. Pei had undertaken a mission to prove that Cast-in-place concrete could be a truly noble material,  equal or superior to the best natural stone.”  It is a point of view  I felt  I should take a long look at,  all the more so because the very low bells it rang within me.  Harvard Stadium again.

I. M.  PEI  AT  MIT

Before the Hancock Tower of 1968-1975 marked Copley Square on the Back Bay skyline,  there was the nearly as tall,  though not nearly as handsome,  Prudential Tower of 1959-1965 on the square’s western side.  According to my colleague Keith N.  Morgan of Boston University,  whose  Boston guide is never far from me now,  Pei designed the first skyscraper at MIT,  by then long since moved for expansion purposes to the Back Bay’s adjoining neighborhood of Cambridgeport across the river,  to be on axis with with the Prudential.  As Pei earned his MIT architectural degree in Copley Square,  and is known to relate to that locale more intimately than to Cambridgeport,  I guessed at once that he positioned his skyscraper,  the  Green  Center for Earth Sciences,  very purposefully. And the reason today,  fresh perhaps from lunch with Tad,  I might find Pei’s MIT tower a more rewarding study than Pei’s later Hancock Tower is that the Green Center for Earth Sciences is,  indeed,  undisguised concrete.

Perhaps because “concrete”,  as Curtis says,  “of all materials, is one of the most flexible,  one of the least determining of form”,  relying on “the shape of the mould and the shaping intelligence of the designer” — Wright though he was not above covering it with white paint, loved the material that could be “moulded to his spatial ideas” —  Pei and some of his earliest collaborators were  drawn to  it.   Pei,  in fact,  was a concrete designer at Boston’s Stone and Webster for a short while,  and at his Kips Bay project in New York City,  the first exposed concrete apartment houses there,  Pei did pioneering work in Cast-in-place concrete that must have weighed heavily in MITs decision to follow his lead in the Green Building,  about which project according to Philip Jodidio there were  “reservations over the still experimental use of concrete in a tall building.”

These were all the stronger because the MIT tower was Pei’s first big job on his own and in his own name.  He told Gigi Marino of The Tech Review once that before MIT he had been little better than  “a hired hand.  I became  an independent practioner at MIT.”  And to very good point.  “Submerged under the economics of real estate development,  Pei’s work,”  Richard Guy Wilson has written,  “had lacked artistry and nobility,  but once freed from these restraints,  the shift in attitude was notable.  He rediscovered architecture as an art.”

Yet  the MIT tower was not in many ways an auspicious start.  Quoth the Harvard Crimson:  “When the Green Building was first opened the doors at the base of the building were difficult to open because of the strong winds coming from Boston Harbor.  Pei was quite embarrassed.” Noted Jodidio, “the entrance portico’s were ultimately redesigned and the wind tunnel visibly transformed into an open frame for ‘Great Sail'”,  a superb forty-foot high stabile commissioned from  Alexander Calder.  It was for his building alone,  however,  his first ‘one man show’,  that Pei’s firm won the Harleston Parker Gold Medal for the most beautiful building in Boston erected that year.  It was the first such Pei would win,  of which the most delicious must have been  for the Hancock Tower,  at first so vigorously opposed.

The MIT tower turned many heads, and still does — exposed concrete as beautiful remains a controversial view  even today in some circles.  Yet this gorgeous sculptural monolith stands there still ,   one of the first heralds of   the architectural aesthetic of the  1960s .

TWO  BOSTON  ACROPOLISES

How  small a world the dawn of architectural Modernism was during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s is clear  a ten minute walk westward of Pei’s MIT tower,  where only nine years earlier one of the first echoes of Huxtable’s widely heard shot was heard when Aalto’s Baker House and Saarinen’s chapel and auditorium were built in the decade between 1945 and 1955,  the first public landmarks of a movement begun in outlying suburbs.  Such was the importance of chapel and auditorium to the wider culture,  the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed at their dedication the world premiere of Aaron Copeland’s “Canticle of the Sun”.  Pei,  still an unnown then really,  might easily have gone quite unnnoticed in the audience.

Perhaps because elitism even of the most progressive kind,  as it is apt to be in Boston,  has been increasingly viewed with suspicion — some there are who in good populist fashion resent the masterwork —  MIT seems only too willing a conspirator in making as little as possible of these landmarks even though they form a New World  Modernist Acropolis far more important than Robet Nauman’s at the Air Force Academy in Colorado! Wheras in the 1960s MIT welcomed Pei’s idea of the Green Center as  “like a flagpole in a public square”,  beside and behind which Pei would group others of his work   (including the ‘knife-edge’ Landau Building)   to center the East Campus,    for over half a century now MIT has ignored Saarinen;s own similar idea  for the West Campus:  he’d  “conceived of [his buildings there]  as on a great square”,  Saarinen wrote,  “but neglected to define and  crystalize exactly how it should be achieved.”  In truth,  such a square  –  somewhat after the manner of Pei  locating his work on axis with the Prudential —  would instantly become in its Modernist way fully the equal of that other Boston acropolis of all three great architectural traditions — Medieval, Classical and  Modernist –Copley Square,  MITs birthplace.

It’s not as if no one there gets the importance of these landmarks.  Architecture  School dean William Mitchell told The Tech once he realized  Baker House,  for example,  was  “an undoubted masterpiece”,  the work of  “probably the greatest archtect of the 20th-century”,  and that  “every architecture student who visits Boston makes a pilgrimage to see it”,  but,  still,   its magnificant north facade,  with its striking hanging staircase,  is best seen across a sea of parked cars.  And  the situation it is very little better with respect to Saarinen’s Kresge Auditorium.

William Jordy wrote eloquently of Kresge  in  the same breath as the Guggenheim Museum in New York,  noting that the MIT building was an even earlier example of  “the curvilinear drama of reinforced concrete”.  Alas,  such experimentation has never been easy and today what Jordy saw is hard to see,  covered as the ‘thin-shell’ concrete dome now is with copper. Saarinen’s magnificnt chapel nearby,  which University of Oregon historian Leland Roth, my old friend and colleague,  has likened to Bernini’s Cornaro chapel at Santa Maria della Victoria in Rome,  has fared better.  Comparable in my view to LeCorbusier’s better known chapel at Ronchomps,  of the MIT Chapel  and Auditorium Richard Dober only told the truth when he declared that Saarinen’s wprk at Yale and at MIT  “have few parallels and no equals”.

Even more present in Pei’s mind,  given the locale of his debut,     must have been LeCorbusier’s Carpenter Center,  of which so much has been written it is hardly necessary here to say a thing except that while Pei’s Kips Bay project was the real turning point in the acceptance and use of architectural concrete in America,  the Carpenter Center,  “along with several others in Europe,  triggered a marked interest and excitement among designers in the U. S.”  without which Pei’s crusade,  and that of many others like Tad Stahl,  who were watching closely,  in behalf of architectural concrete might  well have been much less successful.

A  CONCRETE  ATLANTIS

Time for a crucial sidebar ; never mind for a moment Harvard Stadium,  LeCorbusier no more than Pei were the first to achieve  distinction in concrete in America.  There is a too little known back story to the heroic concrete era of the 1960s,  a back story  Bostonians particularly should pay more attention  to.

Several decades before LeCorbusier came to Boston to scout out the site for the Carpenter Center,  he was in town that time when Pei heard him lecture in 1935,  and while dining one night in the restaurant of the Copley Plaza,  spied there three MIT engineers  at the next table,  occasioning rather a memorable meditation on the Americam engineer,  a meditation akin to another on Boston itself,   with longstanding roots in the French master’s thought.  American engineers had long fascinated him.  If  one of his most famous maxims was   “let us beware of American architects”,  another was  “let us listen to the counsels of American engineers,”  who he saw as presiding over his  “vision of an ideal world”,  a “concrete atlantis”  as he called it,  of American grain elevators and factories and grain elevators which were seen worldwide when in his Vers une Architecture of 1919,  a book that in historian Reyner Banham’s words, made of such work  “icons of modernity.”

When Banham wrote, “there is a causal, cultural and conscious connection  between…[Le Corbusiers]  Villa Savoye and the utilitarian structures of a certain time in North American industry,”  few realize Banham was refering above all to a Boston factory of the United Shoe Machinery Corporation, whose Art Deco skyscraper of 1930 ,  famously the Financial District’s first in that mode,  by no means exhausted that corporation’s contribution to architectural history.  The back story deepens.

Even before LeCorbusier found inspiration in USMs architecture,  Gropius had.  Indeed,  the pictures LeCorbusier published he had borrowed from Gropius,  who had published them as early as in 1913,  he having obtained them almost certainly through the Boston shoe machinery giant,  which was the prime investor in the Fagus factory in Germany Gropius famously designed in 1911.  Indeed,  Banham suggests that it was the “American connections” effect that led to  “the decision to employ Gropius as the architect” in the first place. .  Furthermore,  Banham asserts it  “now seems likely…the preferred flat-roofed silhouettes of the International Style derived to some significant degree from the fact that the American industrial buildings the [European Modernist masters] knew from pictures had flat roofs.”

Who was the architect of the Boston factory,  located in the outlying suburb of Beverly?   Built in 1903 — the same year as Harvard Stadium — the designer was Ernest R.  Ransome,  he of the first reinforced concrete bridges in California,  who came East to find his fortune,  so to speak,  and as it turned out,  achieved  “the most extraordinarily creative part of his career in the actual design of buildings [in] 1903-1906,  in which he designed the fireproof,  daylight [lit] concrete-framed factory in what was to prove its canonical form [at] the enormous plant in Beverly,  Massachusetts,  for the United Shoe Machinery Corporation.”

Quoth Banham:  “even on the score of stylistic modernity,  let alone technical proficiency and inventiveness,  [the USM factory]  is the match for anything built anywhere in the world at that time.” Indeed,  its “decorum and puritanism” seemed to  Banham  more self-assurred than that of Auguste Perret…in the same period”,  the reference being to the famous French architect who pioneered in Europe the frank use of reinforced concrete. Subsequently,  Huxtable has chimed in, calling the Boston firm’s factory  now “the single most important and recognied landmark in this country,  predating the Detroit auto factories by the engineer Albert Kahn”.

Restored and opened to the public in 1997,  the Beverly factory is interesting especially to admirers of Wright ,  because  now  highlighting ,  for example,  the assertion of Henry-Russell Hitchcock that  “Wright used [reinforced] concrete…in Chicago in 1905,   just two years after Ransome was completing the first mature example of a large plant of [reinforced] concrete frame construction,  the USM plant in Beverly”; never mind Bainbridge Bunting’s  observation that “the elegance and power of Harvard Stadium,  opened in 1903, proved conclusively the aesthetic viability of massive [reinforced] concrete–the material Wright would use two years later in his Unity Church in Chicago.”  Indeed,  Curtis has one so far as to say that there is  “little doubt that Mies van der Rohe was stimulated…by the romanticization of American garage and factory structures so prevelent among the European avant-garde,  seeing these …in photographs…[and refering] to them as icons of a new,  universal language of architecture”

Of LeCorbusier,  as much Pei’s master as Gropius,  however,  much more may be said even than that of the old Boston plant.  “Wheras for Gropius  [such work was]  simply  [an]  exemplar for a better modern industrial architecture”, Banham has written,  “for LeCorbusier [that work] had become — like the Tempietto of Bramante — [an] exemplar for all architecture forever.”

HEROIC  EXPRESSIONISM

What an unromantic word  is  grid!   Yet it was New York Times critic Paul Goldberger,  trying to explain the crest of dramatic concrete architecture of the 1960s  in the wake of the Carpenter Center and such buildings as Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale,  who declared that  “Pei’s ability to bring rhythm and texture to a facade that is just a grid of concrete in absolutely superb.”  Geometry is also rather an unromantic word.  But I would call Pei’s “inspiring”,  others have called their like “idealist”.  One scholar of the architect Louis Kahn writes of   “apparantly simple,  almost dumb geometric forms” whose surfaces,  however,  animate  “an emerging dialectic of intellectual restraint and sensous expressiveness.”  It is the reason I am sure Leland Roth, in his excellent American Architecture: A History,  calls Pei and Kahn  and Paul Rudolph and other  practioners of this concrete style ,  masters of “Heroic Expressionism

Roth defines this school as yet another “variant of Modernism focussed on extremely dramatic expression of form or structure”,  characterizing  such Neo-Expressionism  elsewhere  (in Understanding Architecture)  as distinguished from the earlier  “German Expressionism” of the 1920s,  a style marked  above all by Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower,  designed to be built of  “reinforced concrete,  the material that for Mendelsohn symbolized the potential of the new century.”  And these American Neo-Expressionists  of the 1950s and ’60s,  believeing that  “the primary function of a building is to mold space, to create form”  —  their icons included buildings like the New York Guggenheim and the Sydney Opera House — staged   according to Roth yet another Modernist revolution.  “The injunction of the International Style against symbolic expression,” writes Roth, “was swept away and a new generation of expressionists blossomed.”

A reason I like Roth’s  term , “Heroic Expressionism”,  is  that it quite nicely plays into an whole era when the big story,  so to speak,  starting in the 1940s and peaking in the 1960s,  was New York in painting and Boston in architecture.  In New York it was Abstract Expressionism,  as heroic as it was abstract  (noted art critic Robert Taylor: the period “in art represented an heroic age for the painters of New York”);   in Boston it was Heroic Expressionism,  as abstract as it was heroic,  as was everything by Pei and his school.

Now big cities do many things at once,  big and small,  and there was also in Boston a smaller story,  there being,  Taylor added, “also a period of heroic accomplishment for the painters of Boston.  It saw the first indiginous style to emerge here in this country”,  in the work of Jack Levine,  Karl Zerbe and Hyman Bloom,  the last the Latvian Jew  who not only couldn’t,  Boston-like, compete with Jackson Pollocl’s theatrics in New York,  but wouldn’t compete artistically either,  sticking to his grim,  Holocaust-inspired figuratuive expressionism that while it possesed the spirituality of William Blake was hardly very attractive in the usual way.  All this  the Institute of  Contemporary Art , in an exhibition  of the day ,called “Boston Expressionism”. So Roth’s so Bostonian “Heroic Expressionism” puts out some feelers that may yield on further study more light on both the art and architecture of the period.

The “Heroic Expressionist” architects Roth named he divided up astutely, observing that  “if Kahn represented the more rational and intellectual side of heroic expressionism ,  then Paul Rudolph represented the more aggressive, flamboyant aspect. ” To the latters work part seven will be dedicated.  But it is necessary first,  in an essay which pivots on the work of Pei,  who stood between Kahn and Rudolph,  but closer to Kahn,  to first touch on the work of that genius,  who all Pei’s biographers are clear greatly influenced him.

Kahn,  more Philadelphia  (where he was based)  than Boston,  more Yale than  Harvard,  had nonetheless more than one Boston ambition,  besides teaching at MIT,  which he did only for one term  and regaling Boston audiences with some of his most picturesque lectures.  Alas,  Kahn’s chief Boston ambition went very much awry:  one of the major disappointments of his career, ” one of his biographers writes,  was  “his losing his bid to design the John F. Kennedy Library”.  Still,  the one time Kahn got his chance in Boston’s orbit he seized it brilliantly,  the Phillips Exeter Library in Exteter,  New Hampshire.  (Pace,  New Hampshirites,  resentful that parts of their state,  like  Rhode Island or Maryland,  are now largely suburbs of nearby metropolises;  the Exeter library is barely a half hour away from Machester/Boston Regional Airport today.)

When Carter Wiseman wondered out loud why Kahn bothered with what seemed after Daka and the Salk Institute so small a job,  he answered his own question by noting the school’s venerable history.  It has been a key feeder school to Harvard for over 200 years  and is an important satelite star of  Boston’s educational galaxy today,  what Wiseman called an authentic “Temple of Learning.”  For which,  moreover , Kahn created in the library’s  four-sided monumental six-story high atrium of architectural concrete,  with its huge circular cut-outs,  one of the great architectural spaces of the world.  It is a space,  Wiseman reports,  that “explodes with spatial and techtonic excitement”,  excitement of a sort that defines heroic expressionism.

Key to understanding it is to realize that “Kahn’s humanism…is not the Renaissance humanism of elegance,  comfort and  balance”,  writes Sarah Williams Goldhagen. “It is a humanism that offsets sensitivity to the scale of the human body with an aggressive,  unfamiliar use of materials and language….Few in Kahn’s circle were interested in beauty,  a classical concept that was understood to rely on eye-soothing formulas and familiar motifs”. Said Kahn: “architecture need not be necessarily beautiful”.  More important,  he suggested,  was fidelity to the spirit of the thing.  “Beauty cannot be built into architecture by design .  Beauty evolves from acceptance and love.”

Kahn,  be it said,  had a lot in common with Marcel Breuer,  who seems to critic James McCowan an excellent example of what he calls  “masculine architecture”,  who as Robert Campbell has pointed  out,  “fell in love with the muscularity of concrete”.  The result was masterworks like his gateway at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville,  Minnesota,  which McCown brilliantly likens to “a giant monstrance  held up by some defiant last priest.”

Pei,  Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis doubtless saw,  occupied not just a middle ground between Kahn  (and Breuer)  on the one hand and Rudolph on the other, but did so with his own very Chinese sense of style,  a formalist as well as an expressionist,  not interested either is soothing formulas,  but by no means disdaining Renaissance humanism,  elegance and balance.

One sees this perhaps best in Boston in Pei’s Kennedy Library,  the tremendous 115-foot high atrium of steel and glass adjoining the stark white precast-concrete of the tower,  is as elegant  as it is monumental,  superbly Bostonian in its bald,  plain-spoken but eloquent annexation of sea,  sky and downtown skyline.  At first the Kennedy sloop,  Victura,  seems too much.  Than one learns that Mrs Onassis was adamant there be no bust and all is forgiven.

Between confidence and arrogance is always a thin line,  of course.  Here as in Copley Square. Said Pei :  “[Harry] Cobb and I came to the conclusion”,  he told Michael  Cannell,  “that Copley Square,  in spite of these two great buidlings by Richardson and McKim,  lacked the enclosure , say , of the Place Vendome.  Maybe what it needed was a twentieth-century addition to create a new space” — a third masterpiece.  How arrogant is  that!  And in the event how  inspired.

Similarly Pei’s own explanation for the  ‘showy’  Kennedy atrium,  as some have called it.  Conveying meaning as he always does through volume and void , without recourse to detail,  the design of the Kennedy atrium evokes a profound sense of time and place and purpose through silence and light acting on weight and density of architecture.  It is all the answer there is perhaps to Donlyn Lyndon’s insightful but pointed observation that all Pei’s Boston work shows  “ingenuity of site plan,  simplicity of volume and precision of detail:  an eloquently fashioned emptiness that is  presumed to be a rekindled vision of civic order”.  Pei,  who wished the visitors own  thoughts in the end to be the memorial,  has always stressed that the atriums “emptiness is  the essence.”

THE  NEW  BOSTON

I.  M.  Pei  has  been,  historically,  seen as sufficiently a Bostonian,  though his firm has aways been New York-based,  that one of his biographers has written of the Intellectual capital and not the Economic capital as  the  “adopted home town”  of Pei,  who was born in China.

That is not to say Pei has had other than a very rocky ride in Boston.  His formative and somewhat unsettled educational years were spent in  the Back Bay and in Cambridge.  His wife to be  was when he met her a student at Wellesley.  His architectural debut under his own name was at MIT.  His “gateway to fame”,  in the words of one biographer,  was the commission to design the Kennedy Library,  while the Hancock Tower,  before it was a triumph,  was a disaster sufficient  to almost end Pei’s career and close down his firm.  Not least among his Boston trials was his Government Center plan of 1959 for the newly established Boston Redevelopment Authority  . Keith Morgan does not exagerate in remarking that the Pei plan “marked the beginning of the ‘New  Boston’.  It also involved Pei big time in Boston’s notoriously savage politics.

The architect got it from every quarter.  On the one hand his original Kennedy Library design adjoining the Harvard campus fell afoul of the the elite Boston propensity for being politically liberal but socially  conservative in personal tastes and lifestyle.  The Brattle Street gentry,  led by a sister of the president of the First National Bank of Boston,  wanted nothing that was not red brick with white trim anywhere  near Harvard , and nothing at all of the hordes of tourists the first Irish-Catholic president was in their view likely to attract.  Entirely well intentioned as well as well connected,  they succeded in killing off Pei’s design,  a design Margaret Henderson Floyd  felt would have been  “a stunning architectural gem to the diadem of Harvard. ”  Centered on  a  “glass pyramid symbolizing President Kennedy’s abruptly cut-off life,   a design that re-emerged 25 years later in Pei’s design for the expansion of the Louvre Museum in Paris”,  there was opposition too in Paris,  but in the French capital the countries president was close at hand to impose  his own standards.  Similar leadership in Boston circles was not so readily at hand.

If Pei fell afoul of the patricians of Brattle Street,  his Government Center plan equally aroused the ire  in the age of Jane Jacobs — she of  The Life and Death of Great American Cities — of those who lived in neighborhoods they,  if not  the first generation of city planners,  did not feel  were slums,  such as the vibrant West End neighborhood adjoining Beacon Hill which was destroyed in the 1950s.

All these problems were made worse by the kind of anxious,  conflicted place Boston’s core city was in this period,  ossified into a sort of trance or stalemate between the  Yankee and Irish establishments which had been in  more or less continual conflict since the turn of the century and the eventual rise to power in Boston of its famously corrupt Mayor Curley.   Just because of that ethnic  conflict,  a legacy of what became class hostility dominated the 1950s and ’60s.  Fascinating,  for example,  was the response in  a recent article in ArchitectureBoston of a group  of architects active in the ’60s to the idea that the present day “Boston architectural community,  nationally known for its collegial culture…intellectual generosity and…civic responsibility…came from [the end of the ’60s]”.  Agreement that was true and that  “Gropius was behind much of it”,  he having brought the “ethos” of the Bauhaus he had co-founded to the Boston architectural scene,  and that  the result was a “growing excitement” and “a heady time” — in which,  for example, “Harvard Square [was] considered one of the centers of the architectural universe” — was accompanied,  however,  by memories  that Boston in the 1960s was “terribly  narrow,  terribly unsophisticated “, with no sense of the incongruity of the two responses,  which can only be explained by  the high profile class antagonisms of the era.

One superb project after another in the period in Boston was touted — Sert’s Charles River-front “clusters of  high rises”  — the Harvard cluster,  the Boston University cluster,  the MIT cluster — the Six Moon Hill suburban community in Lexington,  MITs Kevin Lynch’s “high-spine concept…of high rise buildings”, Cambridge Seven’s work on Boston Harbor — not exactly  what one would expect of a narrow,  unsophisticated community,  which it certainly didn’t seem to be to Ada Louise Huxtable,  with her shot heard round the world  — seemed to make no difference to  those who made this oddly bifurcated response.  What had surfaced was the fact that  in Boston  (as in Chicago or Rome or wherever)  there were and,  historically,  always have been,  two Boston’s,  which in this blog we call global Boston — that’s Huxtable’s town — and local Boston.  That’s the “terribly narrow” one.  Even though the conflicts sorrounding Sert’s Peabody Terrace over the years modeled such town/gown   conflicts  —   that being, of course, another terminology to describe these two Bostons —  yet another is the legendary “Back Bay/South Boston axis” —   there is always a sort of denial of such class antagonisms,  a denial that does not clarify.

It’s nothing new of course and has everything to do as well with nativity.  Local Boston might well question if Sert or Gropius ,  for example,  were Bostonians at all,  never mind Pei.  I once asked poet David McCord,  who hailed from Oregon before he  came to Boston to Harvard and never left,  about that,  and his reply —  distinctly more global than local– was that “The Oregon Trail began in Boston.”

The enormous  changes Pei presided over in Boston architecturally were  made doubly controversial by being invested with all this angst.  Pei,  however,  was absolutely emeshed in global Boston.  For example,  key to the Boston Renaissance Pei  led in  helping to express was  the way after World War II not just Harvard but  MIT as well began to assert leadership.  The role of MIT in the war effort had greatly increased its stature.  “Its myriad scientists and technicians, ” Laurence Kennedy  has written, “became a catalyst for for the renaissance of a Boston that had already begun to stir” and  played a crucial part in this era  in  forging  a new public and private sector alliance for leadership.  And in this world Pei moved with great  skill,  attracting many loyalties,   designing ,  for example,  a striking if modest intervention at the Museum of Fine Arts,  focused on a 225-foot long  barrel-vaulted gallery,  that transformed that institution into a modern museum.

The ‘New Boston”,  portents  of which were the defeat of Mayor Curley by John B Hynes at the dawn of the 1950s and the Boston College Citizen Seminars  that brought together in Lawrence Kennedy’s words ,  “Yankee businessmen and Irish politicians”,  blossomed in 1959-1960 when on the Irish side a  highly gifted and progressive  politician,  John F Collins,  was elected  mayor of the core city,  and on the Brahmin side Charles A  Coolidge and Ralph Lowell established what came to be called ‘the Vault’,  a business  coordinating  group that in alliance with Collins introduced new leadership in the core  city across the board.  Collins,  in turn,  hired a brilliant and forceful city planner from Yale,  Edward Logue as head of the new Boston Redevelopment Authority,  established in  1957-1960.  And although some disastrous 1950s projects — the bulldozing of the West End neighborhood and the new Central Artery cut through downtown Boston — could not be stopped and others —  the Prudential Center,  for example —   could only be improved — Collins and Logue on one side and Coolidge and Lowell on the other embarked upon what can only be called the brilliant decade of the 1960s which transformed  core Boston.

Logue not only recruited Pei to  this  cause  ,  but also my old  friend and mentor, historian Walter Muir Whitehill,  who  while  he did not suger coat the lossess — the 1966 Saltanstall Building,  for example,  he admitted,  involved  “destroying a number of once handsome buildings” —   on the other hand also admitted,   for example,  when Haymarket Square disappeared ,  that it was  “no loss,  for it had no architectural or topographical merit”.   He had,  moreover,  very clear goals,  the clearest of which was to  to preserve the historic heart of the old State Street Financial  District near the harbor,  encouraging there the sort of  skyscraper development  that would prevent its dispersal to the Back Bay. “Without the foresight of Logue and Pei, ” wrote Whitehill, “State Street might have splattered itself all over the city.”

Whitehill became,  in fact,  Pei’s ardent supporter,  making no secret of why,  noting Pei’s  long familiarity with the city since  his student days,  something Pei confirmed.  “I was able to enter Boston society very early on” ,  Pei once remarked,  in no small measure because of the cities long ties with China.  Pei “arrived with introductions to his fathers business acquantainces”  in Boston. He always felt very comfortable in the old  China Trade  capital.

The architecture of the  new Government Center was,  of course,  not Pei’s.  The star was Gropius,  whose “loss of expressive power” at age eighty was only too obvious,   but who is said to have been very  invested in the Kennedy building because it was his first American high rise.  But Pei’s part,  both the failures — the  City Hall Plaza  has never been a success — and  the triumphs  — the relationship of the Government Center to State Street is masterful —-is not hard to see.  Walk along Tremont Street just before the Parker House and you will see if you look down a brass medalion in the sidewalk commemorating the care the Boston Redeelopment Authority as advised by Pei took to preserve significant views,  indeed,  in some cases to create new ones.  In this case it is the wonderful perspective  across City Hall Plaza of the Old North Church steeple.

MARTY  PERETZ’S   “BRUTALIZING  BOSTON”

When the owner of a national magazine famously opined about what he called  “Brutalizing Boston”,  Marty Peretz  in  The New  Republic  was choosing his words carefully,   playing on the fact that Brutalism,  not Heroic Expressionism,  was what many called the concrete architecture of the ’60s,  particularly in the Government Center,  where stand two outstanding targets of such attacks as the use of this word really soon came to amount to.

A more British than American term,   the popularizer of the  word Brutalism, critic Reyner  Banham ,  ended up rather disdaining it,  “clearly disappointed the architectural non-aesthetic he had praised so much”  in Owen Hatherley’s words “developed not into [what] he hoped for,  but transmorgified into sophisticated masterpieces of proper architecture.”   Such more fundamental meaning as the word ever had — “to convey the the rough grain of modern urban life” is Curtis’s stab at it — never quite took,  and in the end  “Brutalism” as a stylistic label is more polemnical than scholarly,   it having become,  really,  in Huxtable’s words,  “a term of opprobrium.”

No building has suffered more from such problems than the Boston City Hall of 1968,   the centerpiece of the Government Center,  a work so widely influential it is mentioned as a model three times in the AIA Guide to Architecture of —  New York City!   (From the political capital,  meanwhile : the Washington Post critic praised Boston’s city hall as  “a building of more guts and conviction than any other government building in the country,  save for the U. S. Capitol itself”) Flaws it has,  but Boston City Hall is a majestic,  iconic landmark — Aalto below, LeCorbusier above — in which Kallmann,  McKinnell  answer convincingly the question, “Why Heroic?”

The answer has in William  J. R. Curtis’s view much to do with 20th-century western history,    when in the wake of the Fascist and Stalinist taint monumentality had after the  Second World War,   Curtis argues that the problem of the Heroic was how to  “handle public buildings with appropriate degrees of presence and accessibility:   to establish the terms of a democratic monumentality…for the liberal minded.”   He added:  “monumentality is a quality in architecture which does not necessarily have to do with size but with intensity of expression.” To which I would only add that intensity,  while it may not be everybody’s cup of tea,   is not brutalism.  That is to see only LeCorbusier here,  and not  Aalto,

Even more the object of attack has been the State Services Center of 1972 by Paul Rudolph.  Carter Wiseman,  for one , admitted that here as elsewhere Rudolph’s vocabulary was “a coarse one,  concrete poured with a cordoroy texture made even more rugged by hammering the raised edges,”  thus exposing the very sharp,   crushed stone of the underlying agregate. The result, Wiseman thought,  was “a hostile surface”.

Worse has been said of this building,  most importantly that is more threatening than welcoming to those who use it.  Yet just as Wiseman’s  “hostile surface” is also,  he admits,  “almost ornamental”,  so also  in Rudolph’s work  “the abrasive treatment of the concrete  can come together with a lyrical sense of sculptural form”,  here,  for example,  and perhaps supremely,  at his Art and Architecture Building at Yale.   Mildred  Schmertz is not wrong to call the State Services  Center one of   Rudolph’s “most spectacular exercises in urban form”.   And now that the new Brooke Courthouse has properly set off  the  romantic Rudolphian scultural landscape in its courtyard — the staircase of which is worthy of Bernini’s Rome — more may come to realize that.     On the other hand,  Rudolph’s work does,  I think,  not approach the gravitas of Kahn’s.

HEALING  THE  CITY

Lamenting once that God had not given us sufficient wisdom to solve all the problems humankind confronts,   Phillips Brooks,   Boston’s  priest-poet and saint-bishop of the 19th century,   asserted nonetheless that  “He has given to every one of us the power to be spiritual,   and by our spirituality to lift and enlarge and enlighten the lives we touch”.  Another formidible Bostonian of that era,   Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy,   she of “Our Father/Mother God”  many years ahead of most,   wrote under that quotation from Brooks’s sermons,  “The secret of my whole life is in the above”.  It ia also the secret,  I suspect,  of  Pei’s conception of  the third of his major works in Boston,  along with the Hancock Tower and the Kennedy Library,   the Christian Science Plaza.

Aaraldo Cossutta of the Pei office was the lead designer of this project and  it is  important to remember in  respect to the Pei offices work  that it was “Cossutta [who] helped shift Pei’s away from the Miesian glass-and-steel aesthetic and into the more expressive plasticism of sculptural concrete that would characterize his work for years to come”  in Michael Cannell’s words.    Yet Pei and Cossutta,   as early as the MIT tower,   were often at odds,   and  Cannell adds  “Pei was reported displeased when a construction-site placard identified Cossutta as partner-in-charge of the Christian Science project….[It{ surprised no one when Cossutta left.”

Eddy/Brooks,  Pei/Cossutta.   Again there is  not exactly conflict,  but certainly a need for healing that the works of all concerned seem to have achieved!  Certainly,  the spirituality of the Christian Science    Plaza is palpable.  And if  that religion ,  like Unitarianism,  is aptly called a “Boston Religion” — and  Emerson is not far removed from either tradition —  this  plaza  may be said to be the gift to its spiritual home of one of only two indiginous American religions.   Again,  moreover,  there is  Pei’s “emptiness” at the heart of it.  Here,  not an atrium,  but the 600-foot long serenity of the reflecting pool.  The Christian Science Plaza is Boston’s Rockefeller Center,  and as different from that New York landmark as Shaun O’Connell suggests it should be when  he allows that  “to be a New Yorker is to learn that the world is there for those who seize the day”,   while  — even here and celebrating a woman who certainly seized hers! —  “to be a Bostonian is  to learn that true glory  is not likely to be found in this world”.

I. M. Pei channeling Mary Baker Eddy channelling John  Winthrop!  Architecture does not get better than that.

Especially at twilight,  when the plaza is an almost magical place,  the tiny, picturesque old Mother Church and its vast domed basilica outlined against the sky,  this is  a  very thoughtful  — and thought provoking — place indeed.  Margaret Henderson Floyd wrote of  “jewel-like forms” — especially the great dome —  seen across the pool,  so beautifully “edged in  polished granite”– as “reflecting them in Venetian splendor.  “For  Marcus Whiffen and   Frederick Koeper ,  their minds more fixed on the parallels  with the great colonnade Bernini added to Saint Peter’s,  the scene is a more Roman one,  they bowled over by “the controlled bravura of Pei’s conception”  here, which they pronounce  “the most ceremonial of all [Pei’s] designs.”

For me it is the  28 story skyscraper that has always stood out,  exemplar  perhaps of my later interest in concrete for it is certainly sculpture of the highest stature.  The Hancock Tower,  visible in the background,  is a beautiful and spectacular work of art.   The Christian Science tower is a noble work of art. It makes Stahl’s case.   Its broad,  quiet masses with their deeply shadowed voids form a whole  that profoundly  embarrasses the tawdry   skyscrapers at the Prudential Center   that now crowd the plaza at its eastern end.

Mark Pasnik has written: “Nobility comes from the way the architect’s design brings into play the physical strength of concrete,  and how that strength is expressed visually.   If you can’t see the concrete you can’t understand.”  Here you can see the concrete.  Indeed,  a concrete grid much forward of the glass controls moving shadows so as to annex the sun itself to all this idealist geometry.

For just that reason for Donlyn Lyndon it is,  not  twilight,  but late  afternoon that he  craves here,  when the tower’s  “wall becomes thick with shadow and reflected light”.  All this ,  “executed in the flawlessly formed and finnished concrete for which the Pei office is renowned” ,   prompts from Lyndon what I can only call a meditation on this tower:   the endlessly repeated unit of its 28 story grid being nearly square,   “Leonardo da Vinci’s diagram of a man inscribed in a circle could be lodged within one,  only slightly larger than life”,  he writes.   “The elements of this wall are pieces of concrete in sizes consonant with the human body;  in this it is scaled carefully,  measured to man.  Yet it is the inert figures spread-eagled in an ideal configuration that one imagines there,  not the messy,  errant folk we see around us.”


Yet therein too there is healing.  The  serenity of reflection that so moved Floyd is the gift of the  calming long reflecting sheet of water at the plaza’s  churchly heart.  But there is a bit of Rockefeller Center here afterall in the saucer-like circular fountain at the plaza’s eastern end with its cavorting children,  the saucer built up to a sorrounding  bench in sculptural concrete from which idling parents watch.

A word must be said of the Colonnade building,  with its long ground story passage formed by  oblong concrete piers,  their nearly knife edge angles marching stalwartly along,  the piers pierced by arched openings of human scale that humanize  without sacrificing grandeur.  Over each arch is a block of concrete from which protrudes an elegant,  sparkling glass electrical globe.

When all is said and done,  however,  the most  insightful commentary here,  also Lyndons,  has to do do  more with prose than poetry:   “the masses of concrete that serve as attics,  cornices  or endpieces…[are] cast in sections carefully stacked upon each other in a manner reminiscent of the severe granite slab buildings of [Boston’s mid-19th-century] waterfront. ”  Pei is  channeling  Boston Granite too?

I well remember years ago when reading Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s first guide to Modernist architecture in Boston how shockingly bored he was  with  all the usual landmarks untill he got to some I’d never seen,  much less heard of,  all those  grim blocks of granite warehouses down along the harbor.  These,  Hitchcok,  the leading scholar in his field of his time,  these,  he pronounced, were  “hardly equaled anywhere in the world.”

Well,  I made hasty pilgrimage,  and like poet Elizabeth  Bishop,  “fell in love” with those gritty old bastards,  as one pal called them,  blocks the architect who restored and remodeled Bishop’s told her  according to Brett Miller — it was Lewis Wharf —  were “the finest granite-work in the world except for Machu-Picchu.” When one remembers that we have James O’Gorman’s word for it that Richardson too was in awe of this mid century granite architecture — “the Boston Granite style, as it was called even its own day…spread well beyond Boston [as] Richardson    [if ] he had paid any attention to the new buildings rising around him during his youth in New Orleans [would have known]” —  one sees in a flash how deeply rooted 1960s concrete Heroic Expressionism is in Boston’s own history.

A   “BOSTON  SCHOOL”  OF   MODERNIST  ARCHITECTURE?

Was there in the Neo-Expressionist architecture of the 1960s,  or has there emerged from it since,  anything like the 19th-century Boston Granite style in architecture or the turn of the century Boston school of composers,  or, in the 20th-century,  the Boston school of psychotherapy that William James  prized  so,  or like the mid century Boston Expressionists in painting?   One scholar,  no less than William J. R. Curtis , as long ago as 1980 was already circling warily around this possibility,

Central to Curtis’s approach was the immediate influence he saw of Gropius and the major international firm he founded  here — TAC, The Architect’s Collaborative –on three smaller  Boston-based firms:  Ashley, Meyer and Associates  (Arrowstreet),   Cambridge Seven and Benjamin Thompson Associates,   and on three iconic works by those firms.   In the case of Arrowstreet it was the Boston Artchitectural Center in the Back Bay ;  in the case of Cambridge Seven,  the aquarium on Boston Harbor in the case of Thompson,   Design Research in Harvard Square.

In these works particularly Curtis saw “sobriety and logic” and of a distinctive Bostonian sort.  He wrote:  “Gropius’s own seemed to prefer well organized architectural prose to the extremes of architectural poetry”.  That said,  Curtis pounced:  “the historian who is determined to define a  ‘Boston School’  of architecture”,  he declared,  “will have the most luck if he looks at the work  …[of]   the sixties  [that shows]  “a pre-ponderent tendency to plain geometrical forms  to…simple rectangular concrete frames and skeletons;  to detail  [of]  a ‘no-nonsense,  no-frills’ manner and to…bare concrete finnishes.”   Remarking that in all this the  [Sert-inspired]  influence of LeCorbusier was as crucial as the nearer influence of Gropius,  he added  that so far as he could see the name of the game in Boston was  “Gropius-inspired common sense…clothed in a rough skin derived from LeCorbusier.”

There was much talk of “Architect’s Corner” in Harvard Square,  where Gropius and Sert both built adjoining buildings and where too there was a social center, the still extant Harvest restaurant,  and also a retail outlet,  the now long gone successor to Rapson’s in the Back Bay,  Design Research.   Some sense of its importance appears in the description of it by New York Times critic  Herbert Muschamp,  who clerked as a young man in the New York branch, “the only retail establishment in New York where you  could buy the objects on view in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art.   Founded by Benjamin Thompson,…who would go on to pioneer the concept of the festival marketplace in Boston,  San Francisco and New York,  the store stocked the classics of modern furniture by Thonet,  Aalto,  Mies van der Rohe,  Magistretti Hoffman and  [Charles]  Eames.”

In terms of design,  however,  Curtis focused on the harborfront aquarium by Cambridge Seven,  describing its  “concrete wall-and-pier system  [as]  a reinterpretation in appropriate technology of”– you guessed it — “the simple warehouse structures  [of the 19th-century Granite style]”.

With the benefit of a quarter century now I would identify three more architects as of interest in this connection.   First would be Eduardo Catalano, whose MIT student center does not beguile,  but whose  much less well known Washington Mall building in the Government Center does;   “Bostonian reticience executed with Argentine finesse”,  Lyndon proposes,  and I agree.  Also of interest:  the work of the Hugh Stubbins office,   Boston’s star international architect in the 1950s,  comparable to Machado & Silvetti today.

Stubbins,  in whose office Pei once worked,  reminds,  indeed,  that if there is indeed a Boston school it is as likely to be found expressed in Sweden or Turkey or London.  It is also true that his best known work — the highly expressionistic Congress Hall in Berlin,  the iconic Citicorp Tower in New York and the Boston Federal Reserve Bank — is not within our brief here.   Yet one of his smaller Boston works,  Harvard’s Loeb Drama Center,  is.  It is one of very few buildings hereabouts that combines a frankly shown concrete grid with red brick,  as well as huge metalic grilles,   and it has always seemed to me to  be a supremely Bostonian building.

Above all,  however,  circling back  to the beginning  of this column,  I would nominate the work over the years of the Stahl office.

Boston has been for nearly 200 years now,  since the Quincy Market development,  characteristically a stone and now a concrete  more than a brick  city.   But because when the Cradle of the American Revolution first made its mark on the world in heroic,  indeed,  epochal terms,  because then Boston was largely of brick,  brick it will always be for many,  and it is always a good sign if an architect — like Stubbins at the Loeb —  while rejecting absolutely the tired tyranny of that material,  is willing at least once to engage that aesthetic and make his peace with it.  Post Louis Kahn’s Exeter and Saarinen’s MIT,  it   is a worthy task.   All this by way of explanation,  or excuse,  if you insist,  as to why my favorite Stahl is indeed of  red brick,    though as much too of glass:  his addition to thee Park Street Church.

Most of  the work of the Stahl office,  however,  established in 1961 in Boston,  is in concrete,  and it is in that work I see  more than elsewhere distinctly a Boston  School of Heroic Expressionism.

Now much has been said here of global Boston and of local Boston,  a distinction this blog is built on in many fields,  not just architecture.  As they are used here the terms always mean more an attitude of mind than any geographical concept.  Bearing in mind the usual distinction between design architects and executive architects,  a  local firm will be by definition primarily business oriented and as much emeshed as possible in  local power circles,   and thus be more professionally than artistically successful      (because, afterall, relatively uninterested or at best laggard in terms of worldwide currents of thought , whther blowing from London to Boston or Boston to the Middle East).

By the same  definition a design firm must be a global firm in sofar as attitude of mind is concerned,   and if global is seen as code for intellectual or cosmopolitan or as class related, so be it.  There is nothing un-American about confidently participating in a worldwide dialogue.  Furthermore,    while local Boston architectural firms may enjoy a global practice,  and,  indeed,  need to for financial success  (along however narrow a corporate groove),  a global Boston architectural firm may well limit itself for any number of reasons to a more regional practice.   The Stahl office is a good example of this.   Most of the firm’s major work  is in  Boston,  within sight significently of all those granite warehouses.

To be sure,  the Park Street Church addition,  presenting so conspiciously  in  brick and glass ,   seems an exception.  Hints appear,  however,  in Stahl’s handsome Hotel Vendome addition,  where light-filled duplexes with sunken living areas organiz ed around  strikingly rounded internal staircases are expressed externally in a facade that shapes abstractly the old Victorian buildings scale.  Yet where it stands out at once,  this granite aesthetic  in Stahl’s work ,  is down near the wharves in the Financial District.

Tad Stah was always  as explicit about his Modernist ambitions — “to express the possibilities of concrete” –as he was alert to his historical affinities:  “I wanted, he said of his State Street Bank tower,  “something of the spirit of the traditional Boston waterfront granite warehouse in the facade detail”.   Furthermore,  in what he sees as his best work,  70 Federal Street,  where he stands or falls as he sees it with a building in which  ” I achieved my vision of an authentic new and relevent architecture in concrete”,  it is hardly a surprise that the works keenest admirer is,  in fact,  Donlyn Lyndon,  whose eye for  the historic Boston Granite aesthetic  I’ve been following here preety deliberately.   “A Brahmin”,  Lyndon calls  70 Federal Street,  “a true descendent of the granite-slab skeletal buildings of the waterfront….The concrete frame is thoughtfully but simply detailed,  with a slight relief where the spandrels join columns….The glass wall between slabs is set back from the edge,  sliding freely behind the columns to leave the structure eloquently unencumbered…very lean and understated,  polite,  rational and charged with energy.” Amen.

Back in the 1840s “Boston’s Granite City   era was relatively short”,   James O”Gorman has written, ” but pivotal”.   The same was the case with the the heroic concrete style of the 1960s.   As Elliot Willensky and Norval White have pointed out,  by the 1980s architectural concrete of Pei’s sort was  “no longer either fashionable or economically feasible”.  Nor,  alas,  heroic.

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