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Ever-changing, buildings’ allure alters with the ages

The MIT Media Lab is this year’s winner of the Parker Medal.

Anton Grassl at Esto

The MIT Media Lab is this year’s winner of the Parker Medal.

Architecture, as I’ve noted here before, is the art we live in. It’s the art of making places, places for human habitation. A place can be a room, a house, a street, a park, or a city. They’re all architecture as far as I’m concerned.

Maybe that’s why people always seem to be so opinionated about architecture. We’re stuck with it. It shoves its way into our lives whether we want it or not. If you don’t like a certain kind of painting or music or theater, you usually don’t have to experience it. But you can’t avoid architecture.

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If you’re a Bostonian, you’re probably more opinionated than most. Maybe you love historic architecture and can’t abide anything too contemporary. Or maybe you treasure novelty and think tradition is for geezers. Maybe you love to hate Boston City Hall and can’t imagine why it once won design awards. Or maybe your idea of heaven is best embodied by the quirky vernacular houses of a street you happen to live on.

I’m roused to meditate on this subject because Boston’s architects have awarded their annual prize for the most beautiful new piece of architecture in Greater Boston. The prize is called the Parker Medal and was established in 1921 by an architect named J. Harleston Parker. It’s co-sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects and the City of Boston. The winner is selected by a jury made up of different members each year.

The new Parker Medalist — no drum roll, please, it was announced a few weeks ago — is the MIT Media Lab, designed by Maki Associates of Tokyo in association with the Boston firm of Leers Weinzapfel. The award presentation hasn’t yet been scheduled, and presumably will depend on the travel plans of Fumihiko Maki, who is 84.

The Media Lab is magical. Wrapped in glass and transparent metal mesh, it appears, in certain kinds of light, to be made entirely of misty air. Indoors, the windowed lab spaces seem to lock eyes with one another across an open atrium, thus becoming a metaphor for the hope that each researcher is aware of what the others are up to. Maki, who has long been recognized as one of the world’s great architects, has created remarkable spatial drama for MIT.

I want to write not about the Media Lab, though, but about some other aspects of the Parker Medal. Over what’s now a run of 92 years, the list of annual winners is a fascinating record of changing tastes. (My nominee for the silliest Parker is the lugubrious Motor Mart Garage in Park Square, the winner in 1927. Go figure.)

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The Parker is the closest thing to a sporting event we have in local architecture. Just as with the Final Four, the Parker features runners-up. The Media Lab won over three other finalists. They were Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley by Boston architect William Rawn, Wellesley College Alumnae Valley by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh (a rare nod by the Parker to a landscape instead of a building), and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Addition by Italian architect Renzo Piano. (Full disclosure: I was a consultant on the Gardner project.) Buildings remain eligible for the Parker for the first 10 years of their life, so it’s possible that one or more of these will win in the future.

Recently I was astonished to spot one former Parker medalist on, of all places, the front of The New York Times Book Review. On Jan. 20, that page was devoted to a biography of L. Ron Hubbard, the guru of Scientology, illustrated by a bold collage of images. The collage featured a photo of Hubbard with flying saucers emerging from his head. Below him, a cluster of groupies, dressed in a 1950s manner (think Christian Dior), looked up adoringly.

Between the groupies and Hubbard stood a work of architecture, a cluster of three towers, from one of which sprouted a huge, vaguely religious-looking cross. The towers were instantly recognizable as Peabody Terrace, a Harvard student residence on the banks of the Charles in Cambridge, designed by Josep Lluís Sert, who was for many years dean of Harvard’s architecture school. Peabody Terrace was the Parker winner of 1966.

The Parker Medal went to Peabody Terrace, a Harvard student residence, in 1966.

Peter Vanderwarker

The Parker Medal went to Peabody Terrace, a Harvard student residence, in 1966.

What meaning, I wondered, did the Book Review believe was being communicated by the image of Peabody Terrace? I called the Times editors and they put me in touch with the graphic designer who’d created the page, Julien Pacaud of a firm called Colagene. Pacaud, it turned out, didn’t know or care about the source of his image. He was merely searching the Web for, quote, “a building from the 1960s with a vintage and science fiction look.”

So much for the architect’s intentions. Sert wouldn’t have dreamed that his building looked like science fiction. There’s an obvious lesson here. A work of architecture, like any other kind of art, takes on a life of its own once it’s finished. It becomes subject to different interpretations in different eras. As perceptions of it change, in a very real sense the building changes, too. If Ugly Victorian can morph into Lovable Historic in the South End, as it has, I guess Sert’s work — Mediterranean Modern, it’s been called — can change into Science Fiction. Time alters what we see. That’s what makes a list like that of the Parker winners so interesting.

I admit to a personal interest in Peabody Terrace. Longer ago than you need to know, it was the subject of the first piece I wrote as the Globe’s architecture critic. The buildings had already been around for some years. I was at a party not far away from them, where I happened to overhear someone saying loudly that the neighborhood was a great place to live — except for those ugly concrete towers that Harvard had built.

Peabody Terrace and its architect won lots of design awards besides the Parker. It possesses many virtues, such as an ingenious system of windowed corridors that skip most floors and a site plan that was meant to offer the neighborhood a pedestrian connection to the Charles riverfront. For other architects, it was an admired work of American architecture. But as I was reminded at that party, it was mostly disliked by non-architects. And it still is today.

So I wrote about Peabody Terrace, which I still like very much, as the symbol of a taste gap. It’s a gap between what’s liked by the larger culture and what’s liked by the subculture of architects and their fans. It’s tough to achieve good architecture when there’s no agreement as to what excellence consists of. The gap is shrinking today but it’s still wide.

Do readers like the Media Lab? I’d be curious to know. And what of the future? If Peabody Terrace now looks like science fiction, what will people someday see in the Media Lab?

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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