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What makes a good tower?

Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File

Boston is about to sprout a lot of tall — very tall — new towers. Pictured: The Prudential tower rising over the Back Bay.

By Robert Campbell Globe Correspondent 

It’s the urban equivalent of a punk’s spiky haircut. The once conservative city of Boston is about to sprout a lot of tall — very tall — new towers.

They’ll be rising downtown, on the waterfront, at the edge of the Back Bay. Several could rival the height of the John Hancock or Prudential building. They’ll contain plenty of office space, but also residences, hotels, retail shops, and research labs.

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In March, the Globe listed some 50 high-rises that were either proposed or already being built in the city. With a new mayor and a booming real estate market, we’re at the threshold of a major era in the architectural life of Boston. In a speech last December, Mayor Martin J. Walsh called for “world-class design.” He cited the creativity of Boston’s people and said the city’s “built environment should reflect this culture of imagination.”

What exactly is “world-class design”? What’s a good tower, anyway, and what’s a bad one?

Let’s think about that by looking at two basic types of urban high-rises. I’ll call them the Diva and the Dagwood.

The Diva, self-centered, is a tower that ignores everything around it. It stands, or rather poses, like an opera star on an empty stage. A Diva is usually set back from the street, behind empty space in the form of a lawn or plaza. Developers often praise such a space as a gift to the pedestrian, but that’s hogwash. A plaza isn’t there for the people, it’s there to show off the Diva, or at best to fulfill some bureaucrat’s square-foot calculation of required open space.

No matter how elegantly they may be paved or planted, urban plazas are boring, windy, and little used, especially in weather like ours. The Prudential, back before its Arctic plazas were filled in with shopping arcades, was a good example. The Federal Reserve Bank, next to South Station, is another. It’s a handsome, eloquent Diva tower behind a plaza that has the charm of a recently abandoned battlefield.

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As far as the public is concerned, cities aren’t made of buildings and plazas, anyway. Cities are made of streets and parks. From the point of view of urban design, the buildings are there to shape those public spaces and feed them with energy.

Think of a great public realm like Commonwealth Avenue. The individual houses along it are often beautiful, but that’s unimportant. What’s important is the way they gather to shape the space of the street. Comm. Ave. is a metaphor for an urban dinner party. The green mall is the long table, laden with trees and statues. The guests are the individual houses, all facing the mall in their best architectural clothes. Architecture is understood as a social event.

Comm. Ave. has no towers, except those of the churches, but there’s no reason tall buildings can’t gather to shape urban space. They can’t do it if they’re lonely Divas. A downtown of isolated towers, like those now being built on the South Boston Waterfront, doesn’t provide good urban space. A better model is the downtown stretch of Washington Street, where a series of infills and renovations in recent years has plugged some of the gaps in the street walls. The architecture now shapes and also punctuates the double-curving path of Washington, which is the quality that makes this street memorable.

Less successful is the Greenway. Instead of connecting with the harbor, the Greenway parallels it. Along the edge of the water, a row of towers, most of them Divas — some new, some old, and some yet to come — stand like sentries to guard the harbor from the public.

There’s another kind of tower, one that I’ll call the Dagwood. It’s three buildings stacked atop one another, like the layers of comic strip character Dagwood Bumstead’s absurdly tall sandwiches. One is on the ground, one is at the top, and the third is in between.

The slice at the bottom may be only a few stories high. It’s the part of the tower that lives in the human world, shaping the street space and nurturing pedestrian vitality. It needs enough visual kick to be interesting. Maybe there are doors and windows, restaurants and banks, maybe just pleasing examples of the craft of construction, whether that’s crisply elegant modernism or a rich interpretation of an older style. Often the Dagwood is built right up against its neighbors on both sides, without space between, thus creating continuous street frontage.

The top slice is the Dagwood’s contribution to the skyline, the banner it shows to the rest of the city. Manhattan towers used to look as if they were wearing party hats, the influence of the Art Deco period when so many were built. The party hats — domes, gables, penthouses, or whatever — make New York look a little playful, as opposed to the businesslike flat-tops favored more recently.

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

The John Hancock tower.

Boston has some of both. The old Hancock tower, now known as the Berkeley Building, features a party hat in the form of a weather beacon that glows in changing colors in the night sky. The Pru, less funky, is topped with a flat box that makes the building look as if it’s balancing a book on its head to improve its posture. Still worse is 111 Huntington Ave., which is capped with a literal crown. I guess that makes it the king of office towers, a truly Disney concept.

You can think of the hats as a kind of semaphore system, by which buildings talk to one another across space. At the new Whitney Museum in Manhattan, for instance, a big upper window directs your view to the top of the Empire State Building some 20-odd blocks away, framing it as if it were another artwork for the museum.

The meat in the Dagwood sandwich, of course, is the middle floors. They’re not on the street, and they’re not in the sky. They may contain anything, although offices and residences are common. It’s OK if the facades are a little repetitive and anonymous, although if there’s some variety of uses indoors, a good architect may create some variety outdoors. Condos may sprout balconies; energy issues may require sunshades.

None of this is rocket science. Famous towers like the Empire State or Chrysler building are typical Dagwoods. Walking past either, you’re not even aware there’s a tower above. Instead the lower floors push forward to line the sidewalk with activities.

A good Boston Dagwood is the Ritz-Carlton Towers development across from the Boston Common. The lower levels serve the street with a cineplex and other retail, the middle is residential, and the top is a roofscape that possesses enough individuality to be recognized and remembered.

Another fine, recent Dagwood is the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s dormitory tower on Huntington Avenue. Built in 2013 and known to students as “The Tree,” it’s a wonderful example of Mayor Walsh’s words about the “culture of imagination.” The Tree is alive at the public sidewalk and bold where it meets the sky, and its colorful facade registers, in architecture, the energy and variety of the school inside.

Peter Vanderwarker

The Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s dormitory tower on Huntington Avenue.

There are exceptions to all rules. The Hancock tower, by Henry Cobb, a partner in the I.M. Pei office, is a dazzling Diva that gets along just fine without a top or a bottom (and despite its grim plaza). But a city of Hancocks would be monotonous and inhuman. Cobb now has under construction a 700-foot residential tower on Dalton Street, next to the Christian Science Center and near the Prudential tower. It’s too early to tell, but it will be fascinating to see how he deals with urban space on a challenging site.

Architecture is the art of making places, not primarily an art of making things. It’s the art of using building and landscape to shape space. A place can be your bedroom or your street or your neighborhood, or a garden or a park or a city. It can be any space that human beings have created for habitation. The best city is the one with the most livable places.

Following up on his call for better design, Walsh announced in May that the city would create a new general plan for growth and development, the first in half a century.

City planning went out of fashion after the disasters of urban renewal. But Boston used to be admired for it. There are no better examples than Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace, or the layout of the Back Bay, or the legendary Boston Transportation Planning Review of 1972, which initiated the Big Dig and much else.

As for towers, another historic plan deals with them. It’s the High Spine, a concept invented in 1961 by MIT professor Kevin Lynch. Lynch proposed that Boston’s future high-rise buildings — there were few at that time, really just the Custom House tower and the old Hancock — should be strewn along a continuous swath of land, beginning in downtown and extending out along a corridor between the Back Bay and the South End. Built there, the skyscrapers wouldn’t injure either neighborhood and they’d be close to transportation.

After 54 years, the Spine is part of the city’s DNA. It’s alive and well and still giving Boston a shape and a sense of place. Let’s plan equally well again.


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