Thursday, March 5, 2020

A midcentury maverick

Pop quiz:

Where is this?

(a) Charles River Park, Boston

(b) Beacon Street, Brookline

(c) Memorial Drive, Cambridge

(d) New York, NY

(e) Co-op City, Bronx

(f) LeFrak City, Queens

(g) The Churchill, White Plains, NY

(h) On the streetfront of the Greenwich Village apartment block in Alfred Hitchcock's movie Rear Window


















Answer: 

None of the above. 

If you answered (b), you weren't too far off — because it's actually on Beacon Hill. 

But before my comment box gets deluged with how-did-that-get-there or there-goes-the-neighborhood gripes, I want to let you know that this was one of my favorite buildings in Boston when I moved there from New York City at age 10, from the moment it caught my eye at the end of Brimmer Street the day I started fifth grade at the Advent School half a block down from it.
 
Built in 1952, River House at 145 Pinckney Street readily recalled the midcentury modern apartments I frequented when visiting classmates or my dad's design clients in New York, which I wasn't ready to renounce as history became my home. 

That's why I was awestruck by how the seven-story structure's clean lines, buff brick, terrace balconies, corner exposures, Chicago windows, flat roof, sweeping courtyards, superblock supremacy, and horizontal emphasis in all of the above sharply contrasted the small vertical rowhouses and sash windows, red brick, curved bowfronts, slate hipped or mansard roofs, ornamental accents, hidden gardens, brownstone stoops, and cast-iron railings and bootscrapers for which Beacon Hill was historically renowned and revered for centuries.
 
Reluctant to haunt the dark corners, cramped halls, hardwood floors and steep steps of the Federal-style rowhouse we moved into, I longed to make River House's oversized windows, open floor plans, wall-to-wall carpeting, cocktail terraces and elevator/ concierge services home again. For the streamlined simplicity of its image of easy living and creature comforts echoed the slogan of its contemporary, Charles River Park: "If you lived here, you'd be home now." But unlike the latter, River House did not wreck a neighbor- hood to make a statement.
It was built on primarily open land occupied by one building called the Old Ladies' Home, where the vast acreage allowed its occupants ample light and air to maximize the health of their senior years. River House's unique L-shape, with a linear or angular "ell" extension on each leg, allows its residents similar benefits: a grassy back yard for recreation, a tree-and-shrub-planted garden patio for neighborly socializing, and generous light, air and balcony space for general good living in the units, as an "antidote" to the Hill's narrow and shadowy (but charming) alleyways. The street views of the historic Hill architecture aren't bad, either.

In short, River House is a prime example of how modernism and historicism can be cozy bedfellows, each enriching the other by a contrast of styles.


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'The day in question'

Notre-Dame de Paris fire, April 15-16, 2019.
Photo by Antoninnnnn, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
This Wordplay Meetup prompt stoked the following flames in my imagination:

The day in question is April 15...

...the day Abraham Lincoln's assassination impelled us to question the underrating of his legacy and the understaffing of presidential security...

...the day the sinking of the Titanic spurred us to question what caused the tragedy and how cruise ships could be made safer, but above all, to question the naïve mindset about her "unsinkability"...

...the day our tax return submissions prompt us to question how much we might save were last-minute filing not our bane...

...and the day the burning of Notre-Dame de Paris left us hanging with the question of just how she should be rebuilt. 

Notre-Dame de Paris in 2010. Photo by sacratomato_hr, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Should she be restored to her pre-incineration incarnation, if only to keep Quasimodo and Victor Hugo from turning in their graves? Or should she be resurrected according to present millennial sensibilities?

Such a question no doubt divides the Parisian public, who are just as drawn to radical modernism as to the Medieval Gothic of Our Lady. I mean, consider the colossi of contemporaneity that have space-aged the city's landscape over the past 40-odd years...

Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1977, Renzo PianoRichard Rogers and Gianfranco
Franchini
). Photo by Jeff & Brian from Eastbourne, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
...the exposed innards, guts and bones of La Centre Georges Pompidou modern art museum, for which Les Halles were sent to the slaughterhouse...

Louvre Pyramid, Paris (1989, I.M. Pei). Photo by Bilderteppich, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
...the geometric linearity of the late I.M. Pei's glass pyramid at the Louvre, counterpointing the venerable museum's French Academic classicism with a crisp currency rooted in Egyptian mathematica...

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris (1989-96, Dominique Perrault). Photo by Michaelstephaneboucher, courtesy Wiki.
...the behemoth "bookends" that symbolically comprise "La Très Grande Bibliothèque" de la Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the lofty legacy of the Mitterand administration...

Grand Écran Italie, Place d'Italie, Paris (1992, Kenzo Tange). Photo by David Monniaux, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
...that Grand Écran Italie cinematic contraption by Kenzo Tange that disrupted the historic fabric of La Place d'Italie with a space-station spectacle...

Eiffel Tower, Paris (1889, Gustave Eiffel). Photo by Benh Lieu Song, courtesy of Wiki.
...and, of course, the Eiffel Tower, so structurally advanced for its era (1889), with hyperbolic paraboloids that not even Baron Haussmann would dare tinker with when rebuilding Paris with his French Second Empire traditionalism (though he wasn't shy about taking the tower's symmetry to the streets).

Notre-Dame de Paris after the fire, courtesy of Tasnim News and Wikipedia.
Notre-Dame spire on fire. Photo by Guillaume Levrier, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Notre-Dame's bare skeleton, though, reveals how structurally clear the Gothic was. Flying buttresses and slender columns, tenets of modernism, bore the loads and resisted the flames as they devoured the medieval hammerbeams and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's prized spire. Just as progressive for its time as the above examples of 19th- and 20th-century modernism were for theirs, Notre-Dame's Gothic structure should guide its resurrection, to do it justice, structurally and aesthetically.

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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Twin towers

Millennium Tower, Boston, 2016.
Architect: Blake Middleton of Handel Architects.
Photo: Beyond My Ken, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
One Dalton, Boston, 2019.
Architect: Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed Partners.
Photo: Edward Orde, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.





















Not in the WTC or Petronas sense of the word. Just equally overscaled, overrated, intrusive, expensive, and just plain dull and forgettable—though, like the antecedent Prudential Tower, so omnipresent from everywhere you can't get them out of your head, and, unlike the precedent John Hancock Tower, lacking in contextual distinction and memorable form. 

Which makes it surprising that the Millennium Tower (left) in Boston's Downtown Crossing and One Dalton (right) in Boston's Back Bay got so many accolades when they opened in 2016 and 2019, respectively. For they share more common attributes with the unanimously reviled Pru than the universally praised Hancock (though one of them was designed, regrettably, by Hancock's architect).

Millennium monster

Millennium Tower near completion in 2016. Photo by Carter Hubert97, courtesy of Wiki.
Designed by Handel Architects, most famous for the 9/11 Memorial in New York, the Millennium Tower makes no sort of impression from a distance. When its glass facade (ho-hum, that's all that's built nowadays) regains its reflective powers, it resembles either a svelte version of a Bic cigarette lighter or a cluster of those shiny-new Sheaffer pens I got as a Christmas present ages ago but hardly took out of the jewel box, thus preserving their silvery-chrome luster to this day.
Such an appearance is an intrusion on the historic Boston skyline, to be sure, creating odd bedfellows with the historically elegant Park Street Church spire near it (top, left), the area's original and best "skyscraper." 

Nor is it compatible with the building it was part of the redevelopment of: the neoclassical Filene's (right), designed in 1914 by noted Chicago architecture pioneer Daniel Burnham, most renowned for its bargain basement where wedding gowns and prom tuxes could be had for rock-bottom wages. 

Let's face it—a penthouse condo that dropped for $45 million is so out of place here (which it is, physically, being way up there), beyond the clear clash of the glass with the historic ornamented masonry and pressed metal that refined the Filene's shopping experience, even for basement-bingers.

Dalton domination

Designed by Henry Cobb, renowned for the John Hancock Tower (1976) in the Back Bay and the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse (2004) in the Seaport District, One Dalton hardly lives up to the promise of those two groundbreaking buildings at all. 

In fact, it regresses to the thrown-up commonplaceness of one of his first Boston projects, Harbor Towers (1971), which essentially recycled modernist design elements that Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier had already pioneered in Chicago's Lake Shore Drive Apartments and France's Unité d'Habitation, respectively.













Be honest: Would you really want to pay $34 million to live all the way up there? With nothing surrounding you all day but glass and sky, it would get pretty dull and lonely, wouldn't it?

Two World Trade Center (south tower) after being struck by United Airlines Flight 175
on September 11, 2001. Photo by Robert on Flickr, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Of course, a drop-in from an airplane is another matter...

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'Dream a little before you think'

No one but an architect—an imaginative one, that is—could manifest Toni Morrison's maxim "Dream a little before you think" most fully physically. This doesn't mean the boxy, regimented, cubical blah spitting out of draughtsmen's AutoCAD and SketchUp screens by the gazillion to resolve an urgent housing crisis, meet a client's deadline, or throw the blasted thing up ASAP. 

It's the architecture that swoops, swirls, swishes, glides the eye through space, wakes us to wonder, challenges our conception of being in a space by allowing us to truly experience it, celebrate it, revel in it, and wish we didn't have to return to the housebox we make our bed in.


Ray and Maria Stata Center at MIT (2004, Frank Gehry). Photo by Laura Choate, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Stata Center main hallway. Photo by Alan Levine, courtesy of Flickr.
That would include Frank Gehry's Ray and Maria Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dedicated in 2004, it's an extravaganza of excess in architectural agility. 

Walls bounce and rebound like Wham-O Superballs. Ceilings soar and sink like Soaring Sam gliders. Windows shoot out like spitballs. Bays bulge like obese bellies.

And all of this is the product of a dreamer who could translate his reveries to computer algorithms as the bridge to the thinking phase of his visions, so he could walk, chew gum, and blow bubbles all in one fell swoop of a Superball. 

And ballsy it is, compared to the geometric rigidity of virtually all the M.I.T. architecture that preceded it.


Stata Center sprinkler explosion, March 6, 2007. Photo by Yoyo Zhou, courtesy of Flickr.
But it turned out Gehry may have dreamed a little too much and didn't think enough about the technical snafus such a box-bursting design would inevitably cause, such as the sprinkler burst shown here—ironically, amid fish and circle sculptures with "messages on them that extol the virtues of water conservation," said the photographer, Yoyo Zhou.
Long room, Old Library, Trinity College, Dublin. Photo by Diliff, courtesy of Wikimedia.
Another architectural dreamboat—albeit on the classical side—is the Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College Library in Dublin. Built between 1712 and 1732 and roof-raised in 1860 for an upper gallery of books, it is the most bookish architecture imaginable, making a good 200,000 of the library's oldest volumes into wallcoverings of wonderment.


Jonathan Swift bust by Louis François Roubiliac at Old Library, Trinity College, Dublin.
It certainly realizes a dream of using architecture to stimulate the intellect by booking all walls solid with old tomes reaching back years and yores, whetting our intellectual curiosities about the sheer store of knowledge within those lines and lines of leather spines, with cerebral sparks from busts of great writers like Jonathan Swift (left).


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Sunday, November 17, 2019

'The function of freedom is to free someone else'

This quotation by the late Toni Morrison raises the question: How has architecture freed people? How successful has the freedom of structural expression architects enjoy today (within footprint, building programme, socioeconomic and environmental limitations, of course) been at freeing those it's designed to serve? Architecture encloses people, to be sure; that's its primary function. But can free expression in architectural design free the product's users as well as its creator's imagination?

South Side Turn Verein, Indianapolis, Indiana (1900, Vonnegut & Bohn).
The first step in such an endeavor is, of course, to minimize the walls inside. Free, open, unobstructed space means free use and free arrangement for free movement of people. Like the wide, high, sunny gym at the New York Turn Verein I did gymnastics in as a kid, in a space similar to the 1900 South Side Turn Verein in Indianapolis...

Interior of TWA Terminal, JFK International Airport, New York, 2015.
Photo by Bogframe, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
...or the swoops, swirls and soars of the arched, curved, vaulted reception area of Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal at New York's JFK International Airport, in its sculptural conveyance of the upward bound of the takeoff and the freedom of flight in the firmament passengers are about to experience, hence their freedom to "roam if you want to, roam around the world," in the words of the B-52's...

Apple Computer Retail Store, Fifth Avenue, New York City. Photo by Ed Uthman, MD, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
...or the glass cube membrane of the Apple Store in New York, where obstruction-free transparency freed users not only from the shadow of walls, the claustrophobia of low ceilings, and the obstruction of columns, but also the influence of...Donald Trump. 

Yes, from 1998 to 2003 our present Prez co-owned with Conseco of Indianapolis the 1968 General Motors building (co-designed by Edward Durell Stone, famous for the Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art) the cube sits on the grounds of. Trump filled in the sunken court there to create a free, open plaza—which may have been one of the few good things he did for this planet, for architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable had castigated the court in her review of the building. However, he also emblazoned his name in big brass letters in two prominent places on the building so it would be crystal-clear who was boss of the block. 

But after Trump relinquished his stranglehold on that structure, Apple reopened the court to let in the sun and surrounds as a skylight to the store, an open invitation to freely peruse its products, and an architectural symbol of how Apple software frees us to explore the world without flying TWA.

Pierce Boston, 188 Brookline Ave., Fenway, Boston.
Photo by LittleT889, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In (or on) the open pool court at the crown of Pierce Boston in the Fenway, the sky is the ceiling, the sun is the lighting, and the windowed walls are the buffers. Here, freedom in design bridges the gap between inside and outside most thoroughly to create an inoutside, an outinside, or a Third Dimension that frees us from convention...

...that is, the convention of the roof over our heads that has been architecture's primary goal since primeval homo sapiens first sought the shelter from the elements that trees couldn't provide when natural caves and cantilevers weren't handy. By piercing the sky, Pierce Boston shows that the sky's the limit on the architect's freedom to think outside the box (by losing the lid, that is) and our freedom to breathe in the world around us. In that way architecture channels us to the world rather than shelters us from it.

But the question remains: in all of these examples, are we truly free, or do we merely feel free? Even when architecture reaches beyond the box, aren't we still, in Paul McCartney's words, "stuck inside these four walls"? After all, that is architecture's primary function, no?


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Saturday, November 16, 2019

A gondola in Boston?

Vew of HarbourFront, Singapore, and a Singapore Cable Car. Photo by SGTOSA, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Roosevelt Island Tramway passing by Queensboro Bridge tower.
Photo by Timothy Vogel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The very idea of a gondola coming to Boston's Seaport District terrifies me, even though I've ridden them before, in Switzerland long ago, and in New York, when I took the Roosevelt Island Tramway and emerged on the isle and back on the main one without a scratch, owing to the city's repute as "a tribute to the American engineer," in Frank Lloyd Wright's words. 

But the late Toni Morrison's notion, "If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it" does mitigate the fear of the cable snapping without notice, of a train suddenly jumping the rail, or of an airplane falling under a terrorist's jurisdiction and careening into a skyscraper. Of course, you do surrender to the air big-time in an aircraft when you let go of your heebie-jeebies and trust the plane to the man (or woman) who wears the wings once its enveloping enclosure and the cushion-comfiness of your recliner convince you of your safety.
Which was one reason why gondolas have fascinated me since my cousin Teddy brought me this toy cable-car as a souvenir of his then-hometown of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, Germany. Since that's a ski resort, gondolas are mainstream there, as solidly enclosed alternatives to the precariousness of T-bar chairlifts.
And the roominess of the Rigi cable-car captivated me as well. I'd peer in, eye it all around from its mopboarded floor to its oversized tinted windows to its ceiling-light fixture (actually an attachment screw for its rig), and exclaim, "Hey, it's great in there!" as if I were wishing to soar above the mountains or cityscapes and gawk at the doll-like delights below while safe in the metallic armor of my "room," just like in a plane.
An inbound Main Line El (Orange Line) train passes over the Charlestown Bridge in 1967.
Photo by David Wilson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Yet somehow a gondola in Boston doesn't feel quite right to me. And I don't think it would be welcome here, perhaps regarded as a reincarnation of the Orange Line El that ran through Charlestown, the South End and Roxbury and the Green Line El along Causeway Street (and don't forget the Central Artery), giving us vertigo, airsickness, barf-bag hankerings, or similar fear-of-flying conditions, until we breathed sighs of relief that the elevated railways were cut down, opening the skies to the city once again. So Boston's Els are not missed at all today, because of the horrendous urban blight their underbellies caused underneath, and because a sky-train would be as unthinkable a place for a derailment to occur as the Seaport's Fort Point Channel waters would be an unimaginable location for a gondola to snap a cable or stall in midair, with as much of a "way out" as Flight 93 on 9/11 had.
Green Line along Causeway Street at North Station before demolition in 2004.


So why would a gondola fly, if an el doesn't anymore? 
Orange Line leaving Dudley Station, Roxbury, 1970s.
And riding the Orange Line El to my ninth-grade Work/Study at Brookline's Museum of Transportation was hair-raising enough for me. There being no guard rail on the track until we arrived at the relief of each station enclosure, I was frightened that it could jump the rail without a moment's notice (no wonder it always slowed down before lurching the track-curve that led it into the old Dudley Square Station). Of course, the only way for me to keep my sanity up there in the air was to surrender to it—and, yes, I could ride it, bolstered by the assurance that no derailment had occurred on that line since around 1914...
Dudley Station, Roxbury, c.1911.
...as well as the reassuring structure of Dudley Station itself, providing temporarily safe-and-sound housing for the passengers as they disembarked in the slate-roofed, copper-clad cast-iron shelters before the train took to the guardrail-less rails again, pushing us back into paranoid look-out-below mode, forcing us to erect our prayer-palms, finger our rosaries, and swish the sign of the cross across our thoraces until the safety and security of the subway brought us our salvation.
Elevated Orange Line heading through Roxbury in the 1970s.
Want a gondola now, Bostonians?

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