Why Is Boston So Ugly?

How we built the most mediocre architecture in history, and how we’re going to fix it.

boston architecture

Remember the crown that Tom Menino picked to top 111 Huntington? It’s there for a lifetime. (Photograph by tony higett on flickr/creative commons)

Thirty Dalton Street, a slim residential tower being built at the corner of Dalton and Belvidere in the Back Bay, is destined to rise 26 stories on a sliver of land just behind the Christian Science Plaza. It announced itself one day last fall, when a tiny piece of the future tower was erected on the site, made of that bluish reflective glass you see on literally every façade in Boston—the kind that unfortunate birds mistake for sky—and standard-issue metal panels, probably labeled “pewter” on the office sample. Formless, indistinct, ugly: another Boston skyscraper inspired by a Holiday Inn in Topeka.

The forest of elevator cores sprouting up around town tells us that we’re living in a once-a-century moment—a sugar rush of development unseen here since our parents’ parents’ time. But the dirty little secret behind Boston’s building boom is that it’s profoundly banal—designed without any imagination, straight out of the box, built to please banks rather than people. Renderings of 30 Dalton show how its panel-and-glass motif will create a relentless gridded box of windows from floor to sky: Click, copy, and paste. A few weeks after 30 Dalton’s miniature arrived on the site, the backhoes arrived to carve a foundation out of what had been a parking lot. A few feet away, the old brownstones of St. Germain Street—the ghosts of Boston’s long-lost architectural ambitions—hunkered down in 19th-century resignation.

Technology and innovation were supposed to power Boston’s next great age, but judging from our skyline, both were instead harnessed to spit out blank, emotionless towers. If we continue to do what we have done—what we are still doing now—then our negligence, and the passivity of a generation of builders, architects, and city planners, will be responsible for the most unremarkable design period in Boston’s history. For years, few have cared that our buildings look more like executable spreadsheets than good citizens.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

 

Marty Walsh was a builder all his life, but last fall, after the builder had become mayor, he began to look at Boston’s buildings in a different way. He and a handful of city officials, including the chief planner, Kairos Shen, toured New York City to check out its architecture. In that metropolis to the south, Walsh saw a city that consistently kicks our architectural asses: exciting building everywhere, much of it speculative—created by developers who relish taking financial and creative risks. Imaginative planning initiatives had energized sections of New York, such as the High Line, an elevated train viaduct turned into a highly choreographed park that draws crowds of tourists and New Yorkers alike. Why wasn’t Boston like that?

Lovely urban buildings get built all the time—just not here. In Philadelphia, elegant glass towers by American Institute of Architects gold medalist César Pelli are rising up along the Schuylkill River. In Chicago, MacArthur fellow Jeanne Gang recently completed one of the most compelling residential towers in the United States, with a hypnotic, undulating façade. Closer to home, in Somerville’s Union Square, a city-run design competition awarded the area’s revitalization project to a major Chicago developer who assembled a dream team of small local and major national architects (including Gang) to rebuild the neighborhood incrementally. Also across the river, an enormous biotech complex is going up near Central Square. Designed by Maya Lin, the architectural prodigy most famous for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Toshiko Mori, former chair of Harvard’s architecture school, the remarkable construction for Novartis features a fascinating “floating” stone façade in an irregular pattern. It’s traffic-stopping architecture. It’s a wow.

When Walsh returned from his New York trip, he sounded like an architectural evangelist. In a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in December, he passionately advocated for better, more-compelling architecture. “Too often, in recent decades, new buildings have been merely functional,” he said. “I believe Boston can do better. We should aim for world-class design. Our historic buildings reflect our unique past. New buildings should project the values and aspirations of our growing city. We can balance the old and new. And we can do it with imagination.”

Still, our city lacks a consistent language to express its desires. We fumble for the right words because design has so seldom been part of the discussion about development. We don’t have a vocabulary to describe it. And the problems with turning this ugly city into a 21st-century design mecca run far deeper than that: It’ll take more than just the mayor’s vague notion that design matters. The rest of the city needs to get onboard, too.

 

The irony is that Boston is famous for turning out great architects. With four superb architecture schools within 5 miles of one another, we have an embarrassment of innovative designers, many of whom stick around after their education—alas, most of them stick around to teach, not to build. Still, Boston is now home to a handful of world-class architecture firms—companies employing between 20 and 50 people—that are designing beautiful, exciting buildings. And they’re getting built, too. Just not in Boston.

That’s because our most vigorous design firms—including Hacin + Associates, DesignLab, Merge Architects, NADAAA, Anmahian Winton, and Machado and Silvetti—lack the capacity to take on Boston’s biggest projects, like 30 Dalton or the million-square-foot Millennium Tower. That hasn’t prevented these firms from taking on big jobs in other cities: When they need to scale up elsewhere, they partner with companies that have tower-building knowledge. Here, however, that kind of collaboration isn’t happening. Boston’s big local firms work cheaply, charging very little for their services and undercutting everyone else. To make ends meet, they rehash existing ideas instead of approaching each project as a unique challenge: Click, copy, paste.

But that shortsightedness is leading to unintended consequences. Now developers from every corner of the globe are salivating over Boston—precisely because this may be the last place in America where you can recycle entire drawing sets and still make serious dough. Newcomers like Sweden-based multinational Skanska and Oregon-based Gerding Edlen are delighted to cater to our bargain-basement design standards—dumb design means near-instant cash. And Skanska is suddenly king of the waterfront: They’re building three blank-faced, forgettable boxes there right now. Some one million square feet made of glass, glue, and drywall.

  • pocket_mies

    Actually NYC is a vast architectural wasteland, endless tracts of buildings much worse than mediocre punctuated by a combination of masturbatory heaps of ego and an occasional gem. Do not confuse raw numbers to say a city has architectural chops. Boston has a higher density of good buildings and far less truly bad ones than New York. Chicago on the other hand…

  • Scott

    One large problem with the lack of ingenuity and deign in Boston is that developers have to jump through so many extra hoops here with red-Tape and tee cost of Union Labor that they won’t go the extra mile for design. Especially since most times anyone does present a forward thinking design the community activist “NIMBY’S” rip it to shred’s and instead ask them what kind of soup the restaurant on the ground floor is going to serve

    • george

      NYC and other cities don’t have red tape and unions? Who knew.

    • steve2222

      NIMBYs? Hoops to jump through? The Seaport has few residents, with only a few residential projects completed. Yet we see an array of undeniably bland office and hotel projects built on what was the highest potential waterfront on the Eastern Seaboard, parcels that had been graced with $8 billion in recent public investment (MBTA Silver Line, BCEC, Harbor cleanup, CA/Tunnel ramps, etc.). No Scott, it wasn’t the NIMBYs. It wasn’t the hoops developers had to jump through. And I’m quite it wasn’t the FAA height limits. Maybe Morgan Stanley can better shed light on the whys and hows.

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  • KingRichard

    this article would never have been written if Mayor Mention was alive ! Your magazine wouldn’t dare! But it had to be said !

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net/ Jan Dumas

    How a building functions is more important to the city than how it looks. How useful a building is a street level is more important how the building looks at the top. Give me plantings at street level, small stores and interesting entry ways.

    Boston is a working seaport, if people want to drink coffee and look out over the water they can move to Revere, seriously there are some great buildings going up in Revere. and several multi story apartment and condos along Revere Beach and Oak Island.

    • James Ryan

      A working seaport? Are you kidding? What city are you living in ’cause it sure isn’t Boston.

      • http://www.fibrowitch.net/ Jan Dumas

        I live in the outer harbor. Just north of the tank farm and East Boston. The part of Boston that is still a working seaport. Boston Harbor is much bigger than what you can see from ICA and Aquarium.

  • wordsmith

    Interesting criticism coming from a magazine that, in years past, praised a few of the buildings shown in the slideshow for their design acumen, in appropriately reflecting the neighborhood context and doing their best with “what they had to contend with.”

  • Deanna Palmin

    Thank you for this article.

    Painful, but so true. Lack of vision and passion. No one seems to care enough to make a real difference; and when a few do, they get chocked by bureaucracy, politics, and who knows what else. Sadly, BRA is still exactly what it used to be 10 years ago.

    It is heart breaking to see this huge apportunity of the building boom to come and go without making Boston more attractive.

    • Amal Thaon

      Dean Napalm says “… without making Boston more attractive.” How about more interesting? something that works better? What we’re getting is a slew of background buildings that simply block our views. Cripes, we’re still trying to get rid of Haddon Hall in the Back Bay because it’s 50 feet higher than the 70-foot limit, and is godawful to look at from its backside — and 333 Beacon (HoJo Towers as it’s called, because he lived there) which is completely out of line with the Back Bay ensemble and, now, sorely out of date.

      So architects today are aware of the idea, thanks to our elbows-for-teats historical societies who will kick their butts if they overreach themselves like Napoleon III, Ludwig Speer, and Adolf Hitler (which last did a great job of clearing berlin of its slums!). It’s not only not Boston, it is not Bostonians. We are not interested in the megalithic or the repetitive. We did a boulevard, and it’s great; we did a monolith (Luckman), and it’s fuggin’ ugly! We’re interested in interest, even the financial kind, but interest from details; sheets of glass, and facades plastique we’re not. Frankly, we liked crafts, but we’re sick of Bau Haus. We look up to steeples, gargoyles, hawks’ nests, flagpoles, monuments, weather beacons, arches, bronze doors, statues, and cornices, and above all oddities. We do not look up to see how tall something is, we do not stand back and measure volume to frame with outstretched hands or wonder at the ability of architects to repeat themselves like automatons, bay after bay, floor after floor, as Palladian windows are cheaper by the score.

      For one thing, we look at pavements and icy jellyfish thereon. Boston has the most-interesting sidewalks in America — and architects just want to haul in a backhoe and pretend we won’t notice things are missing. Parts of the city are gone. It’s like Sir Walter Scott; everybody walked into the Fens to see Scott, every kid knew his dog Maida. Nobody notices their statue in front of the old Record-American. To be noticed in Boston, something needs to be a bit out of the way. You know, because Bailey’s was impossible for foreigners to find, didn’t mean every kid in Boston didn’t know where it was or how to drag his forgetful mother to it. Boston is a city of living history even to little kids. Imposing grand schemes upon it is, frankly, just imposition. Bostonians look upon that as being rude, acting like Noo Yawkuz. Really rude!

      Nowadays we get buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in Dallas. Half empty? Half full? That means these new buildings look out of place in Boston.

      Even Boston’s grand schemes are composites of small, understandable assemblages — like the Back Bay, which the world admires. The mistakes, like Haddon Hall, stand out like sore thumbs. Boston is, nonetheless, a city of peculiars, oddities, curiosities, and originals. And that is what modern architecture in Boston does not have. Why? Because the architects don’t have it. Theire image of themselves est dans L’Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts, not in the ways, byways, and alleyways of London, the nooks and crannies of Boston — the way the Bostonian thinks of living together. It’s a difference in attitudes, organic vs classical. Nothing is so obvious to a Bostonian as something out of the way or that causes one to think where it is and how to get to it. It’s a great city for training kids to think — and to think about the unexpected — or the unthought of. Boston is, after all, and expression of its people — not of New York, Toronto, and LA developers lookin’ to cash in on a livable city they’d quickly make uninhabitable. There is no way a “developer” can develop Boston any way but by thinking like a Bostonian — and not like wherever he learnt to impose his values on others. Boston has its own values, its own ethics, and doesn’t need superior morals or the big bucks that come with them. We survived ’78 without the thoughtful assistance of the National Guard, thanks so much.

      And it’s time we’ve thanked Halifax enough for its Christmas tree every year since 1917; but we need to set aside a plot where they can plant a little one in 2017, perhaps a centennial, which we can watch grow and be very grateful for.

  • David Rifkind

    “Holiday Inn in Topeka”? Nice. It’s important to share one’s bigotries in the opening paragraph. Maybe one problem with Boston’s building developers and government officials is that their pompous self-centered attitude, steeped in Olde Money disdain for the working classes and Hub-of-the-Universe arrogance toward the rest of the continent, reinforces the sense that they have nothing to learn from the rest of America.

    • drew

      Enter any generic midwestern city name – Dallas is usually a good example of poor architecture as well. It’s not disdain, it’s simply learning from poor architectural decisions elsewhere.

      • ddmmrr

        Neither Topeka nor Dallas are in the Midwest. Nice sense of geography. I’m glad that people in Cambridge across the river are not so self centered; or at the very least, less geographically challenged. The current sidewalk arts program has been modeled after St. Paul’s – you know – a city that is actually in the Midwest.

      • James Ryan

        Try Chicago, then (which, by the way, is actually a midwest city).

  • Pedro Benitez

    Remember John Silber, may he rest in peace: President of Boston University for 25 years, Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1990 (lost against William Weld). As President of BU for so long he was someone with a big influence on shaping the Boston skyline. He wrote a book titled “Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art”, where he lambasted as pretentious charlatans the architects who designed some of today’s most critically acclaimed buildings (among them Frank Gehry for his MIT Stata Center).

  • evilp

    A lot of that blue colored glass is actually pretty hi tech stuff coated in Silver Oxides, hardly the stuff found on a Holiday Inn in Topeka. I would have hoped someone writing about architecture took the time to understand the subject are writing about.

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    • drew

      I think you missed his point – he was commenting on the aesthetics, not the science.

  • jjlacour

    Machado and Silvetti, whom you laud, designed Atelier 505, which you hate.

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  • Dorian

    I think the question you should be asking is “why is so much of american architecture so ugly?” – Boston’s mediocre work is A LOT better than what is being produced elsewhere. Plus – it was only 15-20 years ago when banks started to consider financing mixed-use projects in the US – you seem to have no clue how far we’ve come. Sure, things could get better, but considering where we were…

    And the “mediocre” projects you show – those are much much better than the garbage that’s being built in the hinterlands of the city.

    Also – why do you fail to mention the Mecanoo project being built in Dudley? or some of the innovative work that’s proposed in Mission Hill and JP? Have you even been to that part of the city? Maybe you should get out of camberville sometime before you start spouting off about the challenges that face creating great work in Boston.

    • Kimberly Genereux

      imo Mecanoo project is UGLY. Nice concept but completely mediocre new facades.

  • arlenez

    I don’t think Boston is an ugly city at all!

  • PickledRamps

    I generally agree with your critique. There is only so much space on which to build and the opportunities are being squandered.

    However, the blame is not always the developers’. It would be like blaming TV producers for the Kardashians; people are given that for which they ask. Don’t blame the politicians, blame the voters.

    There is a stereotype of Bostonians as being provincial and conservative. There is truth to that. Attend any city design meeting and watch the public outcry over buildings being too tall or not “fitting-in”. It is absurd and lacks all understanding of architecture and design.

    Comparing Bostonians to New Yorkers is silly – as any New Yorker will tell you. Of course, the response is always “this isn’t New York” which completely misses the point. The options are not to either be New York or create hideous buildings; there is an ocean in between.

    The Bostonian grasp on design is limited at best and so developers give them what they want.

    It is time for the adults to take over.

    • Highland26

      Traditional buildings are much better.

  • kyle

    this article is obnoxious, is the writer themself an architect? have you ever even produced a fraction of the work an architect does in one month in your entire life? don’t judge a city by a few buildings. You should be a promoter of your city, instead you bash it and give it a bad image. Everyone is getting tired of your shitty and biased articles

    • James Ryan

      Except, in this case, he is right on the money. And “the bad image” isn’t because someone wrote an article, it’s because the architecture in this town is really pretty ugly and, at best, pedestrian.

    • Sampson Simpson

      yup. what James said, not what Kyle said

  • Michael Rouchell

    Why is current architecture so ugly? It’s because architecture schools stopped teaching traditional and classical architecture 75 years. Why are historic buildings so beautiful? It’s because the architects were taught how to design traditional architecture.

    • Chris A.

      Survivorship bias

  • ajaxean

    The author is clearly a proud member of the completely out of touch circle-jerk that most contemporary architecture has become. Granted, I would love to see a new, tasteful iconic skyscraper in Boston (e.g. something like the lovely Liberty One in Philly), but unfortunately the chances of getting something hideous far exceed the chance of getting something good in today’s environment.

  • Amal Thaon

    Modern architecture is not created; it’s concocted — from catalogs. Rachel Slade reduces it to the model’s modular method perfectly: COPY, CUT, and PASTE — oh, add BILL CLIENT, 10% 90 Days. We haven’t invented a creative architectural genre since perpendicular gothic (as Ralph Adams Cram noted before art nouveau). Modern architecture just reproduces — for which it needs only ‘robobocateurs’. Today’s architects proclaim volume and empty space so that renderers can humanize emptiness with shoppers glamorizing themselves, recouping building costs. If we wanted architecture today instead of sales spaces, we’d hire artists to create, engineers to build, janitors to maintain – and bankers to loan. Odd, but the best apartment I ever had in Boston was built in 1797 and the best office I ever worked in was built in 1891. As Dey puts it, “a house without a fireplace is uninhabitable, an office without paneling is unworthy, a room without a dog is unthinkable, and a restaurant without a spittoon is unsanitary.” Today’s architecture is like its builders: disposable; its greatest asset its dismantability. How much more useful would be skyscrapers with hinges on the floor so they can folded up at night like our sidewalks.

    • Highland26

      Boring, ugly, and tasteless…ugh.

  • Kimberly Genereux

    Thanks Ms. Slade for a well written critique, and for having guts and taste.