Boston needs bolder buildings, and it needs civic leaders who aren't afraid to permit them. In what could mark a major turn for Boston's architectural history, Mayor Marty Walsh signaled Wednesday that not everything needs to built in red brick. Unlike predecessor Tom Menino, he personally won't be deciding what the tops of new buildings should look like. And, most striking of all, non-boring ideas are now welcome in the city.
"Boston is home to the world's most innovative thinkers — in science and technology, and in business, art, and architecture," Walsh said in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. "Our city's built environment should reflect this culture of imagination. Too often, in recent decades, new buildings have been merely functional. I believe Boston can do better. We should aim for world-class design. Our historic buildings reflect our unique past. New buildings should project the values and aspirations of our growing city. We can balance the old and new."
As the former leader of the city's building trades, Walsh is widely assumed to have a stealth pro-development agenda; Wednesday's speech made that explicit. He touted the benefits of density to spur retail investment and revive downtrodden streets. He boasted about the number of housing units going up across Boston, the thousands of construction jobs in the city, and the approval this year of 10 million square feet of additional floor space.
All of this is healthy for Boston. There's no way to accommodate new businesses without more buildings, and there's no solution to Boston's stiff housing costs that doesn't involve building tens of thousands of new market-rate units.
But it's Walsh's challenge to developers — to "reach beyond your comfort zone" — that represents the starkest departure from recent practice.
Walsh's predecessor had his own complaints about unremarkable buildings and famously selected the odd rooftop tiara at 111 Huntington Ave., better known as the R2-D2 building. What Menino didn't do is invite architects to follow their muses.
Acclaimed skyscrapers, such as the Aqua Apartments in Chicago and London's so-called Gherkin, have gone up even in some of the world's more historic big cities. But it's hard to imagine anything so exotic being built in Boston, where an architect's desire to dazzle runs up against anxieties about shadows, sightlines, and the sanctity of the city's traditional fabric. The existing Boston Civic Design Commission, created in an earlier era of concern about uninspiring development projects, helps screen out bad ideas without inviting bold ones.
Talk to architects who work in the neighborhoods, and they'll describe lots of pressure to make small- and moderate-sized construction projects conform with established norms for height and architectural style. Even when such pressure comes from a grumpy but vocal minority, the approval process in Boston takes it into account, and developers scale their ambitions back accordingly. During the Menino era, the message from the top was to err on the side of caution. Walsh's comments Wednesday sent the opposite message to the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the civic groups that review building proposals. That alone will help.
But if few signature buildings were built in Boston during the Menino era, as Globe architecture writer Robert Campbell asserted earlier this year, it wasn't only because of the former mayor's aesthetic preferences. Dull, utilitarian buildings are cheaper to design and build than fantastically inventive ones — and developers in a city as dense and pricey as Boston have a strong incentive to contain costs.
Complicating the equation are city policies that push up the price of construction — affordable housing requirements, community-benefits deals, the expectation that big projects will use only union labor. Each can be justified on its own terms. Together, they increase the likelihood that developers, who also have investors and institutional lenders to answer to, will see cutting-edge architecture as a splurge and not a necessity. At some point, Walsh may face an awkward dilemma: Should longstanding city policies that spread the wealth ever be scaled back in the name of promoting more imaginative architecture?
What we already know, though, is that Boston won't get bolder buildings without a mayor who's actively seeking them. More distinctive architecture will pay future dividends in civic pride and in tourism dollars, and in showing future entrepreneurs and innovators that Boston is a place where iconoclastic ideas can become real.
Architects and developers shouldn't need political cover to put their best ideas forward. But now they have it — and should make the most of it.
Dante Ramos can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.