What a much-maligned building tells us about the city
You begin to glimpse it from your car when the sinuous ribbon of the Massachusetts Turnpike crests outside Boston: the dull gray tower that heralds the Prudential Center. Never the critics’ darling, the “Pru” is still one of Boston’s most recognizable landmarks, with the letters of the corporation that built it affixed at the top like a typographical cornice line. From a distance, it resembles a modern campanile—as iconic a mark on the skyline as a medieval bell tower in an Italian town.
A moment later, the image on the horizon splits and the view reveals a taller, shimmering slab: the 1976 John Hancock Tower, designed to outshine the Prudential. The Hancock - insubstantial, an iridescent mirage - is considered by many critics to be the more elegant and appealing of the two, although it is perhaps best known for the initial tendency of its mirrored glass panels to dislodge and crash to the ground. Continue reading
ContinuedAlong with the Hancock, the Prudential stands as a bold 20th-century emblem of a life insurance company and its intangible product: financial security. Where ordinary businesses could heedlessly pursue profit, insurance companies carried the responsibility of providing security for families, and to that end they cultivated an image as social institutions. The Prudential Center represented one company's efforts both to cement its own reputation and to insure the future of a struggling city.
Prudential's sign of confidence in Boston helped open the floodgates for new office development. The Prudential Center was dedicated in 1965, when this photograph was taken. Though this was the first major building project since John Hancock's 1947 tower, by the end of the decade Boston was in an office-building boom. The tide was turning from an industrial to a post-industrial, service-based economy, and the Prudential played a key role in that transition.
The building also illuminates another significant postwar transition: Boston's evolution from a 19th-century metropolis, organized around rail-based transport and a concentrated business district, to a regional city organized around highways and easy parking. Today, the mid-century landscape has altered once again. The Pru has a new streetscape, with many new buildings, an indoor mall, and walkways, reflecting a movement back toward a denser, more pedestrian-friendly urban fabric. Two more towers are currently planned for the site.
Many critics have cast a jaundiced eye at the architecture of the Prudential Center - it was out-of-scale, dull, even ugly. But the Pru has been resilient and, over the years, it has garnered a distinctive status in Boston. Love it or hate it, few locals would trade this blocky tower for another building.
Elihu Rubin is the Daniel Rose ('51) Visiting Assistant Professor of Urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture. His book, "Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape," has just been published by Yale University Press. Contact him at www.elihu.info.