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David Eisen

Concrete values

Out-of-fashion structures still have enduring qualities

In Boston University’s Law School tower, architect Jose Luis Sert interlocked concrete slabs in place of carved stone blocks. In Boston University’s Law School tower, architect Jose Luis Sert interlocked concrete slabs in place of carved stone blocks. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2000)
By David Eisen
September 15, 2010

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BOSTON WAS once defined by small houses and commercial structures that met the needs of a colonial culture. Over the last two centuries new kinds of architecture have arisen in response to the demands of an increasingly complex society. They have often been greeted by praise for meeting their builders’ aspirations and then denigration as decades of grime and changing expectations undermined their allure and utility. Many have been demolished.

The loss of architectural treasures suggests that we think carefully about which structures are essential reflections of our urban identity. The Boston Landmarks Commission’s consideration of the Christian Science Center for protected status has turned this spotlight on the concrete architecture of the 1960s and ’70s.

Many buildings of this era were celebrated for their inventive forms and revitalization of the city; they are now condemned for their over-scaled spaces and aggressive facades. But advocacy organizations like the Boston Preservation Alliance and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which once disparaged them as blights on the city, are rallying to their defense. These out-of-fashion structures are being recognized for enduring qualities that are just out of sync with our times.

Not every concrete structure should be preserved. Here are some principles for evaluating which of these maligned buildings should be a priority for preservation.

First, the best buildings of any era give a strong sculptural expression to their society’s defining institutions. Boston City Hall, by architects Kallmann and McKinnell, defines contemporary municipal government as meaningfully as an 18th-century meeting house defined the government of its time.

The towering concrete colonnade establishes a classical order for the modern age, while exuberant sculptural projections give form to the council chambers, the mayor’s office, and the civil service that makes the city run. Its generous glazed lobby with light streaming in from above is a powerful symbol of an accessible government and the need to renew the city center. Solid brick walls and a raw concrete structure provide a sense of permanence while recalling the massive granite blocks and heavy wood beams out of which an earlier Boston was built.

Decades of deferred maintenance and disillusionment with government may obscure City Hall’s once-celebrated virtues, but its sculptural forms have a timeless power that still represents our faith in democracy.

Secondly, buildings worth preserving should not only be timeless, but of their time as well, using innovative construction techniques and materials to give them an expressive integrity. The architecture of Jose Luis Sert explores new ways of building for Boston’s cutting-edge universities, using abstract forms to suggest the intellectual inquiries going on inside.

Boston University’s Law School tower is a contemporary reinterpretation of traditional masonry construction; in place of carved stone blocks Sert offers interlocked concrete slabs that ingeniously articulate the building’s construction. Harvard’s Peabody Terrace is bristling with metal-clad balconies and sunscreens — establishing a human scale for this high-rise housing. And at Harvard’s Science Center, Sert uses a beautifully proportioned kit-of-parts building system that creates a bridge between art and science. Today we may prefer buildings wrapped in sleek packaging, but Sert’s work still has an enduring sense of authenticity.

Thirdly, buildings of lasting value make meaningful connections to the surrounding city. As times change these connections can get lost, and then renewed through creative transformations.

Paul Rudolph’s Government Service Center on Cambridge Street was designed to open government up to the public; over time its security conscious departments have turned it into a defensive fortress. Overlooked are its urban-scale passageways connecting to a center-block courtyard and organic curves and elevated stairways that offer a respite from the boxy buildings all around. By adding shops and cafes that can spill out from the concrete arcades, landscaping that reaches into the interior plazas, and brightly colored additions that play off neutral concrete walls, the Center’s sculptural spaces could be reconnected to the city around them.

Other buildings of the era are likely beyond redemption. Government Center garage offers little expressive power, technical innovation, or ability to fit into its urban context.

The Christian Science Center should get landmark status; its reflecting pool is a popular urban oasis defined by carefully composed structures. Other first-rate buildings of the era offer fewer easy-to-love amenities and have virtues obscured by neglect. They may go in and out of fashion but warrant preservation if they have enduring qualities that help define our city and its evolution.

David Eisen is a principal at Abacus Architects + Planners and author of “Boston Modern: The Spirit of Reinvention.’’

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