Deconstructing Boston

In his new book, Architecture of the Absurd, former BU president John Silber takes aim at some contemporary buildings, including MIT's controversial Stata Center.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Geoff Edgers
November 25, 2007

You dedicated this book to your father.

Although my father wasn't a well-known architect, he wasn't a failure. Over the last year of his life [in 1957], he earned close to $100,000, which would be a million dollars today.

A lot of people talk about architecture as something you see.

If you do, then you've made the mistake of what I call the iconic fallacy of conflating art, fine art, and architecture, of treating architecture as if it were somehow an art similar to music or theater or to painting or sculpture. You don't live in those things.

We're in the midst of a cultural building boom in Boston. What do you think of the new Institute of Contemporary Art?

It's an extraordinary use of modern technology and the strength of steel, but it seems to me there's very little exhibition space inside that building for the cost of that building. The other thing is the location makes no sense. You've got a view, but that's not what an art gallery's about. It's not about looking out, it's about looking in.

Another of your targets is MIT's Stata Center, which was designed by Frank Gehry.

That's the piece de resistance.

Did you have a hunch it would be what it became?

I knew it as soon as I saw some of the design. But I had no idea it would be that bad inside. It's a very expensive building that looks cheap.

If you had been in charge at MIT (which is now suing Gehry over the building's flaws), would you have stopped the Stata Center from being built?

I wouldn't have chosen Gehry, to begin with. If Gehry came in, I'd say to him, "You understand, Mr. Gehry, that you're not an artist, you're an architect." Somebody ought to call a fraud a fraud. This guy has perpetrated real nonsense.

What if Frank Gehry's buildings were done at cost and were totally functional?

They wouldn't be Gehry buildings. That's like asking if Socrates were a jackass, would he be a great philosopher.

At BU, was there anything ever built that you saw and thought, "I wish I had stopped that"?

No, there was no absurd building. There are some buildings that are not very pretty. The Metcalf Center was three buildings we put together. We had to be as economical as possible.

You love the Sydney Opera House. What do you love in Boston?

I think the interior of that International Place is quite eloquent and very useful. Certainly, I like Symphony Hall. Any building where the music sounds as good as it does has got to be right. Horticultural Hall is another handsome building. But I think the gem of them all might be the old Boston Public Library. That is a beautiful building.

(Photo by Erik Jacobs)

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