Following on our discussion last time of the beneficial aspects of the genteel tradition, particulary with respect to architecture and landscape design, the question this week is, do we all really want to live in a garden, and an overgrown one at that?
First of all let us recapitulate somewhat. Let us accept that if gentility has survived in the environmental movement to the considerable benefit of the metropolis in ongoing harmonies of great value in architecture and in landscape design especially and city planning also, a reflection of the genteel tradition’s survival in social and political realms generally, its overall decline in literature and the visual arts cannot be disputed; nor would most of us seek to reverse that decline. As a measure of literary or artistic value in itself the genteel tradition is dead and not really much mourned.
However, even in architecture and city planning and landscape design the acknowledged benefits gentility sustains have increasingly in our era seemed compromised. In one respect particularly, the historic preservation movement, so much less driven by educated discernment than activist zeal, gentility has ill served us. But that is too large a subject to plunge into here. More to the point of these metropolitan tales is that this has been true as well of the effect of the environmental movement on the city, something we must acknowledge here before returning to our main theme of the metropolitanization movement, Boston’s “Brookline model” of which has been so driven, historically, by ‘green’ enthusiasms.
Time to head back to the Copley Square library court, and to consider what is a new word to me, the gift of my colleague, MIT professor (now also associate dean) and BBH director Mark Jarzombek — aedificaphobia: fear of architecture. Perhaps a better definition of this word, which is sometimes hyphinated but which Mark insists I eschew as degenerate, would be the promotion of the illusion we all do indeed want to live in a garden, the Edenic implications of which may be obvious but are also very anti-urban.
T H E C H O K I N G B A C K B A Y
The aspect of aedificaphobia upon which this column will focus arises at once as one makes one’s way through the Back Bay Fens to Copley Square, encountering as one might a likely example of same singled out by historian Cynthia Zaitzevsky years ago, Richardson’s Boylston Street Bridge, arguaby his masterpiece of its type, and perhaps “half buried in foliage.”
My own experience of aedificaphobia — which I shall have to force myself to stop using every other sentence, so attractive a word is it — comes more often in the Boston Public Garden, which I enjoy as I’ve said at least once before here — and not entirely to the dismay of founder Henry Lee of the Friends of the Public Garden, an organization we must all be grateful for – -more in fall and winter than in spring and summer. This is because the view, for instance, which I rather cherish, of Washington across the lagoon from the Beacon Street side, all but smothered in summer, but still able to be seen through and around the delicate yellow tint of the weeping willows in winter. Similarly with the spire of the Arlington Street Church, more beautiful than any tree but most beautiful, I think, when sighted through masses of tree tops. Now, however, the tree tops must be bare.
And here is where genteel horticulture turns sour, as it were. Too much of a good thing seems to be something park advocates, like historic preservationists, never are open to. The delicate urban balance of architecture and landscape is not high on their list of things to preserve!
This is true as well of the sculptural art of the park. The collaboration of sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Henry Bacon is one of the things people go to Washington to see; the Lincoln Memorial being their masterpiece. Their White Founain this gifted pair created in the Public Garden is a smaller pleasure, but worth seeing afterall, as right now I really can’t.
Commonwealth Avenue offers no respite either, though it is the supreme example of how the Back Bay;s overall design brings buildings and foliage into urban harmony. The rest of my daily route from living space to writing space, the still evident though fast fading tree-less architectural effect of the blocks of town houses with minimal greenery contrasted with the four noble rows of trees in the central mall is a wonderful experience, but as I say fast fading as people build up great masses of trees and foliage in front of their houses whenever they wish, jungles that would make more sense in Lincoln than the Back Bay, where chaste and minimalist front yards work best. (Full disclosure: my own abode, the Hotel Vendome, has just planted four trees in front of it you’ll see no ancestors of in historic photographs of the Vendome, the design concept of which enthusiastic gardners have entirely overthrown here.
This is true, I’m sorry to say, of more stretches of the Back Bay than just mine! “The noble and uniform effect of this group of structures” that inspired the design concept here of block-long axial perspectives — I am quoting from Bainbridge Bunting’s seminal book on the Back Bay — is as often as not now buried in foliage! How much we’ve lost will be clear if you try to take a photograph of more than one house. No entire block really is now entirely visible. That “a compelling unity” was at the heart of the Back Bay’s visual charm — and the reason it was preserved in the first place — is Bunting’s point on every other page. “Five parallel axes . . . lined with long blocks of houses, interupted only at long intervals by subsidiary cross streets . . .each reinforcing the other, creates, “Bunting writes, “an overwhelmingly unified urban environment.”
Now he is not one to sacnt the contribution trees make to this composition. “The green mall down Commonwealth Avenue links the green open areas of the Public Garden and the Fens”, he writes, emphasizing, however, how “the pedestrian [in the Back Bay unencumbered by foliage] must have experienced a strong psychological pull which carried his gaze along the street corridor to the open spaces [of Public Garden and Fens]”. No more.
Forty years ago, writing in 1967, Bunting was already confronted with the fact that these hymns of praise to the areas much vaunted urban design were true only “as the Back Bay was originally built, before the streets were choked with trees.” Choked? His word, not mine lynch his effigy — and reflecting the views, not at all by the way, of landscape architect Charles Eliot, who sixty years earlier had despaired of “a small but influential group of refined persons” for whom there could never be too much green anywhere. “These people,” Eliot continued, according to Carl Haglund, “talk of ‘letting nature alone’ or ‘keeping nature natural’, as if such a thing were possible.” It wasn’t, Eliot insisted, railing against “refined people” — do I hear anyone intoning neighborhood activists? — who thought it “sacriligious to control or modify the existing verdure”. The idea, Eliot wrote, was “nonsense.”
T H E B P L C O U R T
All this comes to a head in a sense in the Copley Square library court, where aedificaphobia — here no other word will do — has been over the years an ongoing problem, still evident in the creeping, growing, always more fullsome horticulture that must be watched like a hawk, else it devour one of the most splendid parts of America’s greatest public building of the 19th-century. Even today, the chaste islands of flat, reticient planting are troubled by “features” only too often; in this case if not borders of rounded white stones, then the next best thing !!! — borders of white flowering plants that quite defeat the whole point of low flat plant islands planted with dark green that merge seamlessly — or are supposed to — into the also dark pavement.
The plant islands themselves are a hard won victory of well over a decade ago now over a much loved local jungle — all one can call the tree clogged court of the 1980s — the removal of which involved politics worthy of erecting a skyscraper.
The architects of the Copley Square library, the only architectural rivals of which in this country in my judgement are the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and Nebraska’s State Capital, invisaged hardly any architecture here at all; nor, indeed, in Copley Square, which McKim imagined as one of those splendid Roman or Parisian paved squares around a central fountain that Americans are so charmed by in Venice or London but never seem to achieve at home, prefering to turn such squares into into miniature tree shaded parks.
In this we refute the taste even of Olmsted himself, who at Stanford University in California, for instance, urged founder Leland Standford to “pave the court” of what is now called Memorial Court there, and similarly the Inner Quad, where the Stanford’s wanted grass. The best Olmsted could do, in the words of Richard Joncas, David J. Neuman and Paul V. Turner, in their guide to Stanford’s architecture, was to “persuade [Stanford] to adopt a planting scheme more Mediterranean in character, with plant islands [in] a paved surface.”
That was the solution too of the Olmsted office at MIT in the same period at MIT in 1913, where architect Welles Bosworth insisted on a “paved central court with perimeter plantings,” to which he later desired to add a “grand reflecting pool”. Ever wary of such lyricism, MIT instead chose within little more than a decade that the “paved part [be] ripped out and the entire area [be] planted with grass and trees”, as if, Mark Jarzombek observes in his Designing MIT, it were “a park”, disrupting utterly “the delicate visual balance Bosworth had invisaged between foliage and architecture.”
Trying for the same elusive goal, too refined a taste even for some who claim to love the Roman gravity of the BPL court, the best architect Daniel J. Coolidge and I could manage was plant beds, which in the BPLs case are larger probably in total area than the paving!
One pines here not only for a more sophisticated client but — what is perhaps even more important — a landscape designer of sufficient genuis in this case to equal McKim as an architect. I think of Ralph Adams Cram, about whom I have tested the world’s patience by writing a two volume thousand-page study of his life and work published five years ago by University of Massachusetts Press. Cram was a man of so large an ego he and his gifted and entirely reasonable landscape designer at Princeton, Beatrix Farrand, feuded constantly. However, “despite conflict [with Cram] Farrand clearly had been inspired by Cram’s handsome buildings and the[ir] knowing spatial relationships . . . . training trees and shrubs . . . and clipping them to forms that harmonized and enhanced” the architecture. Indeed, in the view of landscape historian Diana Balmori, who I am quoting, “these plantings . . . [made] a specific contribution to [Cram’s] design”, not least in the fact that by disdaining fussy details — like white flowering borders — Farrand “created spaces of majestic calm.”
That would be a landscape design worthy of the BPL court, which suffers too I must add from its central artistic focus, the famous (or infamous if you prefer) Bacchante that did belong here in the 1890s when it was rejected, but does not belong here now, that too being the result of misplaced gentility, which today is more likely to be called political correctness. Next time.
S O U R C E S
Balmori, Diana, et al. BEATRIX FARRAND’S AMERICAN LANDSCAPES (Saga Press) 1985
Bunting, Bainbridge. HOUSES OF BOSTON’S BACK BAY ( Harvard Univ. Press) 1967
Haglund, Carl. INVENTING THE CHARLES RIVER (MIT Press) 2002
Joncas, Richard, et al. STANFORD UNIVERSITY (Princeton Architectural Press) 1999
Jarzombek, Mark. DESIGNING MIT (Northeastern Univ. Press) 2004
Shand-Tucci, Douglass. “Toward a new history” in GODS OF COPLEY SQUARE (www.backbayhistorical.org/eScholarship)
Turner, Paul V. CAMPUS (MIT Press) 1990
Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED AND THE BOSTON PARK SYSTEM (Harvard Univ. Press),,1982