The path to more distinctive architecture in Boston leads right through City Hall, and not just because that’s where Mayor Marty Walsh and his development regulators have their offices. It’s also because the building itself underscores how a culture of adventurous design depends, one way or another, on the exercise of civic will.
In a fascinating new book called “Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston,” architects Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley extol the creative energy of the period from 1960 to 1976. And as Bostonians from Walsh on down express disappointment in recent architecture, most notably the blocklike Seaport District structures designed by a handful of high-profile firms, there are lessons to learn from the age of monumental concrete.
If you love traditional row houses or are wary of government power, you’re all but required to hate City Hall, which opened in 1969 on a plaza carved out of a former red-light district. Its construction was a milestone of urban renewal, in which a Boston Redevelopment Authority flush with federal dollars tried to revive a stagnant city by completely remaking the heart of it. This was harsh medicine; the wholesale demolition of entire neighborhoods is almost unthinkable now.
But private investment resumed downtown after the construction of Government Center, and the project helped fuel a new architectural movement to boot. Dozens of imposing, hard-edged modern structures arose around Greater Boston: Madison Park High School in Roxbury, the Christian Science complex, Harvard’s Holyoke Center and Peabody Terrace. The polarizing style is often called Brutalist, but Pasnik, Kubo, and Grimley prefer the term Heroic, which captures not just the hubris of the era but also its idealism and optimism.
The authors of “Heroic” are affiliated with a South End firm by the (strangely punctuated) name of over,under. They’re also the curators of Design Biennial Boston, an exhibition last summer on the Rose Kennedy Greenway that featured examples of innovative architectural work. And when Walsh convened a design summit earlier this year, Grimley was part of a mini-insurrection by designers who bemoaned the closed-off nature of the local architecture business.
When I sat down with Grimley and Pasnik recently, I wondered: How do they square that call for greater openness with their defense of a period that’s become synonymous in the public mind with top-down, high-handed planning?
The reality, they insist, wasn’t so simple. “That era was kind of branded with one story,” Pasnik said. “‘Urban renewal — all insensitive, all bad.’ We’re trying to look at a more complex scenario, which is that it saved Boston.”
The BRA, which abused its considerable powers by razing the West End in the 1950s, showed more restraint after Ed Logue assumed control in 1960. The agency still worked in bold strokes: It held a City Hall design competition that awarded a high-profile public project to the little-known team of Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell. In 1965, the BRA issued a master plan that proved transformative in promoting and steering private investment.
In evaluating the resulting buildings, the authors of “Heroic” dwell on the painstaking craftsmanship and the considerable influence that this Boston architecture had all around the world. The period showed, they argue, what assertive, far-sighted city planners could accomplish.
To some degree, the pattern still holds: In recent years, Boston’s most celebrated individual structures — such as the East Boston Library and the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury — have been public projects. Yet a McKinsey & Co. audit of the BRA earlier this year concluded that the agency has been doing less planning than its counterparts in comparable cities. (The agency has added five planners since then.)
Now, unlike in the Heroic era, billions of dollars in private investment have been flowing into Boston. But ambitious discussions of urban form have given way to block-by-block skirmishes between private developers and suspicious neighbors. That’s no way, Pasnik argues, for the city to address large-scale challenges such as rising sea levels. At the design summit, Walsh announced an initiative called Imagine Boston 2030 — the first new master plan in 50 years — but it’s not yet clear how detailed or how prescriptive it will be.
Not even the defenders of the bygone concrete buildings of yesteryear think Boston should go back to building in that style. A sense of humility among urban planners should be reassuring to city residents who don’t want their neighborhood bulldozed out from under them.
But if we see the enduring value in Heroic-era architecture, we can also hope for a measure of boldness — and recognize the downside of being too timid.