STAND ON Boylston Street across from the Boston Public Library — a spot of considerably more emotional weight than ever before — and examine the two buildings that together are the city’s central library. The contrast is striking. To the left is the ornate and lovely McKim Building. Built in 1895, it is massive and delicate at the same time. To its right is the 1972 Johnson Building, simplistic and gloomy. The McKim is one of the city’s most beautiful buildings; the Johnson, one of its ugliest. It’s like evolution running backwards: Over 77 years, we went from good to bad.
In the waning days of his administration, Mayor Tom Menino of Boston has vowed to launch a revamp of the Johnson Building, promising in a recent speech that he’ll replace its granite walls with glass, transforming a fortress that seems designed to repel, like an old-time castle, into an oasis of activity and light that beckons people in.
Menino’s ambitions are more than some speechwriter’s last-minute invention. Task forces involving library advocates and community members have been meeting for months to figure out what to do with the so-called “new” library building. Its multiple failings, inside and out, are apparent to all who visit. Aside from the off-putting exterior, the interior — poorly kept up — feels like wasted space. One controversial idea is to convert much of the entry-level space to commercial use: The money received could keep the library open longer and would bring life to an often empty area. On the other hand, many recoil at ceding over public space to private use.
Something, I expect, will happen; there’s money for it in the city’s proposed budget. But whether the improvements include a radical re-presentation of the Johnson Building to the outside world, well, count me a skeptic. We’ve seen this story before. Boston has its fair share of ugly buildings, and many — including the current mayor — have been thwarted in their plans to tear them down or make them over.
Thus we have Boston City Hall (voted the world’s[!] ugliest building by the website virtualtourist.com); the massive, meandering State Health, Education and Welfare Services Center on Staniford Street; the three JFK federal buildings across from City Hall; and the behemoth, view-blocking Congress Street garage.
Sometimes it’s money that keeps them in place; tearing down and rebuilding is expensive. Sometimes ugly seems to become its own virtue (a piece not long ago in the Globe was titled, “In praise of ugly buildings”). Then too, preservationists and others who should know better treat buildings like inviolable artworks.
The difference, of course, is that a bad painting can be put in storage. There’s nowhere to hide a bad building.
If you’re familiar with the buildings in my list, you’re probably aware that most of them are from the 1960s and 1970s. They were designed by some of that era’s best-known names, including Gerhard Kallmann, Michael McKinnell, Paul Rudolph, and Walter Gropius.
Philip Johnson was also one of those talents. A productive designer who lived and worked well into his 90s, he created some great buildings — just not in Boston. To a degree, the BPL project forced some tough constraints on Johnson, including matching up the new building’s height to the much beloved McKim. What we ended up getting with Johnson’s building was a dumbed-down echo of its predecessor (it even uses the same shade of granite). One engages the eye and entrances the mind. The other stupefies.
So what went wrong? Blame the era, perhaps, one of turmoil and change that rejected the past and celebrated a coarse modernism. Blame also the power of government to force its will and a near-disdain for community involvement.
Architects have learned a lot from those days. Current design more consciously cares about users as well as the relationships buildings have to each other and the street. Then too, it’s hard to imagine any of the buildings on my list of uglies getting approved today; the outcry would be too much. That’s a good thing. It means we aren’t necessarily doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, it does seem our doom that the mistakes of the past are too often part of our present.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org