Last fall, the Washington-based Cultural Landscape Foundation placed Boston City Hall Plaza on a list of a dozen endangered "Marvels of Modernism" -- notable 20th-century public spaces threatened with demolition, abandonment, or neglect.
In many cities with sites on the list -- including Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco -- landscape architects have rallied to the cause of saving them. (In Fort Worth, for example, momentum is building to re-open and restore Heritage Plaza, a noted public park designed by Lawrence Halprin, a living landscape master.) But City Hall Plaza got little local love from landscape architects: The Boston chapter of the Society of Landscape Architects gave a thumbs-down to sponsoring an traveling exhibition based on the Marvels of Modernism project. (The Cultural Landscape Foundation commissioned noted photographers to document the endangered sites. Arlington's Sam Sweezy shot the area around City Hall.)
"There was a concern that the board would be associated with preserving the plaza as is," says Robert Corning, who is president of the BSLA and also sits on its board, "and that is not something the board wants."
Preserving the plaza "as is" is also not what the Cultural Landscape Foundation says it wants. But the BSLA worried that the public might have missed that nuance amid the foundation's talk of the plaza being under "threat" from Mayor Menino (who has proposed moving city government out of City Hall, though for budgetary reasons he recently had to shelve that plan).
Like City Hall itself -- the brutalist brainchild of Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles -- I.M. Pei's windswept brick plaza has never been fully embraced by Bostonians. But it represents a historically important effort to bring new energy to an American urban center, argues Charles A. Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Birnbaum believes it could still serve that purpose if some tweaks were made: new landscape features, for instance, programmed cultural events, and more vendors allowed nearby.
Doug Reed, of the landscape-architecture firm Reed Hildebrand, is a member of the BSLA and also sits on the board of the landscape foundation. The BSLA's decision disappointed him. "I think it's endemic of the deep divide in the public over this place," he says.
Modifications to the plaza are warranted, Reed adds. "The question is, 'How to you do it while making sure it is done with genuine knowledge of the cultural importance of the place?'"
In the end, Bostonians will get to see the Marvels of Modernism show -- but they'll have to wait: The Boston Society of Architects has offered space to the exhibit during the Build Boston confererence, which is scheduled for November. Providing space, however, does not imply an endorsement by the architects of the save-the-plaza campaign.
(Photos: Sam Sweezy)
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