The City That Might Have Been

By Rachel Levitt | Boston Magazine |


As home to the country’s most opinionated ZIP codes, Boston has more than its share of architecture critics. On any given day, you can hear thoughtful analysis from traffic-mired motorists, pierced and tattooed undergraduates, or loudspeaker-equipped duck boat drivers, who all expound on the apparent lack of intelligent design and bemoan massive building bummers (City Hall, Peabody Terrace, that Huntington Avenue high-rise topped with a crown). In these parts, carping about architectural missteps is a well-established pastime.

The supposition, of course, is that it could have been done better. Well, maybe. Some might argue that a better Boston does exist—on paper, anyway.

Open up the files of local architecture firms and you’ll find reams of drawings for projects that quietly died before nary a shovel hit the dirt. Case in point: This spring we learned that the new Boston Museum planned for the Greenway won’t be an $89 million megamiracle of starchitecture and pomp straddling the on-ramps over the Big Dig tunnels, but rather a smaller, simpler affair. The scaling back of the plans received scant media attention; the original sketch (shown here) was filed away. But it inspired us to comb through the archive of lost ideas in search of the Boston that could have been. We dug up some of the biggest proposals that never happened: wild visions that included brand-new islands, superslim skyscrapers, even Amsterdam-style canals. Each would have changed the city in a bold way—and perhaps even satisfied (or maybe enraged) our natural-born critics.

[sidebar]BOSTON MUSEUM (2004): In a dramatic homage to the city’s maritime past, Somerville architect Moshe Safdie proposed ramping up the ground on the Greenway and perching a shiplike steel and glass Boston Museum atop a verdant wave.

PRUDENTIAL MAKEOVER (1986): Every city has a doozy of a tower on its skyline, and ours is the Prudential, a 52-story giant that, despite its high profile, has never truly been embraced. Accordingly, ever since it was completed in 1965, Bostonians haven’t been able to resist the temptation to reimagine it. In 1986, Brookline architect Tom Dolle, then of the Boston firm Jung/Brannen, suggested a Pru makeover of grand proportions. His provocative vision for a new façade would have produced a taller, tapering edifice crowned with a proud spire rather than the mortarboard that currently sits atop the building.

JOHN HANCOCK TOWER REIMAGINING (1996): Dolle wasn’t alone in rethinking Back Bay icons: A mid-1990s call by the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) for skyscraper ideas set the imagination of Winthrop’s Frank Costantino ablaze. A premier architectural illustrator, Costantino wondered what it would look like if you slipped a 45-story building into the belly of the 60-story Hancock Tower.

SOUTH STATION TECHNOPOLIS (1990): While Costantino’s mash-up was never more than a fanciful exercise, a far more realistic tower was dreamed up by Jung/Brannen for Tufts University in 1990. The firm’s elegant 28-story design behind South Station would have housed a Tufts biotech center, anchoring a so-called technopolis along the waterfront. Though the project fizzled when Tufts couldn’t raise the cash, the BRA may still get the complex it’s been envisioning for that space since 1963: Workers could break ground as early as this year as part of a new plan to develop a hotel, office space, and condos on the parcel.

STORROW DRIVE TERRACE (1988): Before there was a Storrow Drive, Back Bay residents strolled straight to the Esplanade, something that this proposal to build over the road would have restored. The firm of Koetter Kim & Associates—itself based in the Back Bay—imagined new buildings on a decked roadway with the neighborhood’s brownstones peeking from behind.

WIND TRAIN (2007): Last year, architects at the Somerville firm Arrowstreet cooked up an ingenious plan to ease transportation snarls with a “wind train,” an eco-friendly monorail powered by attached wind turbines. The train would have traveled along I-93 and Route 128, creating a people-moving loop that could have eliminated some 220 tons of CO2 car emissions every day.

CHARLES RIVER ISLAND (1907): Inspired by the Île de la Cité in Paris, Ralph Adams Cram’s 1907 scheme plopped a man-made island in the Charles River Basin; it would have featured a large civic plaza and a cathedral. A host of other island proposals permeated early 20th-century planning, including one that could have served as a new campus for MIT, which had outgrown its Back Bay location.

CHARLES RIVER ISLAND VETERANS MEMORIAL (1920): After World War I, Cram suggested an island as a perfect spot for a veterans memorial, arguing that the new landmass would make a proposed Dartmouth Street bridge (also scrapped) much easier to build by shortening the span by about 800 feet. Proponents figured the cost savings could have paid for the island’s construction.

FAN PIER CANAL (1986): Among the many visions for the South Boston waterfront at Fan Pier (before the Moakley Federal Courthouse, before the Institute of Contemporary Art) was this master plan that included projects by Cesar Pelli and Robert A. M. Stern, and that proposed slicing a canal along Northern Avenue; lining it with mixed-use towers; and then linking the waterway to a marina, à la Amsterdam.

ELECTRIC HARBOR BUILDING (1987): Just up Fort Point Channel, near the Northern Avenue Bridge, is where Schwartz/Silver Architects planned its Electric Harbor Building. With multiple cantilevers and its own internal canal off the channel, the structure would have been a postindustrial exclamation point on the water.

NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM ADDITION (1996): Schwartz/Silver Architects also sketched out a $100 million expansion for the New England Aquarium. (The current concrete structure can be seen at the center of the drawing.) The project was preceded by an ill-fated proposal to move the aquarium to Charlestown, an idea snuffed by the recession in the early 1990s.

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