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Meet Fred Clarke, the designer of the tower atop Boston’s South Station

He’s been working on the building for a quarter-century. Now it’s finally rising into the sky.

Pedestrians passed the South Station Tower development site in Boston on June 14. The 51-story tower will offer approximately 685,000 square feet of office space as well as 166 luxury condominiums.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Fred Clarke and Cesar Pelli spent years — decades — considering Boston’s South Station tower.

Their internationally renowned architecture firm Pelli Clarke & Partners — renamed a few years ago following Pelli’s passing in 2019 — has designed some of the world’s tallest and most prominent skyscrapers, including San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower, Hong Kong’s International Finance Centre, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, and Boston’s brand-new One Congress.

Clarke recently spoke with the Boston Globe’s Catherine Carlock on the evolution to transit-oriented development and the importance of the 678-foot South Station tower to Boston’s skyline.

Architect Fred Clarke of Pelli Clarke & Partners talked about the South Station tower before a tour of the development site in Boston on June 14. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The South Station tower project has been in the works for decades, and your firm has been involved for the past 25 years or so. How has your work on the project evolved in that time?


It’s the perfect environment for architect and client to work, with a front-row seat to watching society evolve around your project, and the project responding to the evolution of society. Society has evolved to transit-oriented, dense development in the center of cities — that’s the topic in large urban areas like San Francisco, New York, Boston, Tokyo. Some of it was brought into sharp focus by the pandemic: ‘If I could just not commute to work.’ The best way to commute to work is you get off your train and go into the building above you, and you’re there. As simple as that sounds, and as obvious as that sounds, 25 years ago that was not the assignment at South Station. Twenty-five years ago, frankly, this was mostly an infrastructure problem — helping improve Amtrak service, helping improve the bus service. The assignment changed almost entirely over that period of time.

How else did the work change?

Twenty-five years ago, South Station was not a happy place. The site was at the far edge of Boston. Some of what our assignment was was to bring South Station back to life. Today, it’s one of the centers of Boston, and that alone is a primary change in the architecture. It’s even an entirely new assignment today than it was even 10 years ago. Ten years ago, sustainability was an objective to be considered almost as part of a checklist — you had to get some sort of approval from some authority. Today, sustainability is absolutely an underlying requirement. The people who move into this building expect it.


Ironworkers constructed the steel frame around the concrete core of the South Station tower in Boston on June 14. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Beyond the 51-story office and condo tower, the project involves doubling the size of the bus station and expanding the garage for car parking. Why expand parking for cars, as this is meant to be a transit-oriented, dense development?

With all of this added density, you have to accommodate the car. There are still people arriving by car who get on the train, or the bus. It’s not as dramatic an expansion as the bus and train part. The Amtrak expansion is really quite significant. But with all of this added density and added population will come cars. This is an important thing to realize: we’re still in transition between being an automobile society and something else. There will be people in this tower who will say: ‘OK, where can I put my car?’ You just have to be able to answer that question. If we weren’t answering it, this would only be a partially solved problem.


How important is the bus expansion? Right now, the bus depot is off to the side of the station.

You have to navigate through back thruways. It’s very, very unpleasant to get through the bus depot to the main station. The bus traveler here will be treated with an equivalence of the train traveler. Often people on buses are kind of considered second-class citizens or not as important as people who just arrived by train. Architecturally, you can unravel that. Architecturally, you can even that sense of presence significantly. And that’s what we’re doing at South Station.

Ironworker Josh Porter worked on constructing the steel frame around the concrete core of the South Station tower in Boston on June 14. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

How do you consider the importance of this building in the skyline of downtown Boston?

The question of what is an architect’s responsibility, when you’re literally altering the styling of a major city, is something we take very, very seriously. I’m pleased to see the design has aged well. You really don’t know what you’ve done until it’s finished, I’ll be the first to admit that. You can do the most beautiful rendering in the world, you can muddle the daylights out of it, but you really don’t know what you’ve done until it’s finished. The key is timelessness. The key is how one can establish a sense of stability, an elegance, that will last through the decades. The issue in architecture is how to avoid buildings that feel dated. Architects who are careful and thoughtful are constantly checking themselves. They’re constantly asking: ‘Is this the right thing to do? Have I really executed and answered the problems?’


How do you see the design of the tower connecting with the station itself, with its grand facade?

This comes from years and years of Cesar Pelli thinking of this exact thing. Glass is one of the materials of modernity. Glass is one of the materials of contemporary architecture. You can’t ignore it. We always saw the station not just as the podium or the place from which this building is rising, but it’s the stone in the garden where there are also flowers. The permanence, the implacability of it, then itself is a beautiful contrast to the ostensible fragility of that glass tower. It makes enormous sense to us aesthetically.

Architect Fred Clarke of Pelli Clarke & Partners took in the scene from the future sky park on the 11th floor of South Station tower.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Catherine Carlock can be reached at Follow her @bycathcarlock.