Why Is Boston So Ugly?

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

It’s not like our developers don’t know what great design looks like. Ron Druker should be a shining example of a visionary who’s transforming the way the city looks. He was on the faculty of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in the ’70s and ’80s. He proudly brings internationally recognized architects to lecture here, including giants of the field like Thom Mayne. On the Cape, for himself, he’s commissioned two artfully modern homes—simmering with sex appeal—from the Boston firm Schwartz/ Silver. But when it comes to his developments in Boston, his prize-winning architects are nowhere to be found. Instead, Druker has left a dreary array of serviceable buildings, including the revamped Colonnade Hotel on Huntington Avenue and Atelier 505, that boxy residential monolith on Tremont Street. He’s been sitting on the hacked-up shell of the Shreve, Crump & Low building at the corner of Arlington and Boylston—once the proud block anchoring the southwest corner of the Public Garden. On the ground floor, where the famed jewelry store used to be, it’s now a ghost town. Across Arlington Street, luxury purveyor Hermès eyes its abandoned neighbor with trepidation.

And Druker is hardly alone. As a class, Boston’s developers act as if they care passionately about…well, the bottom line more than the skyline. When a Boston developer considers himself a patron of the arts, he gives money to the local art museum, rather than contribute a masterpiece of a building. These are guys—and they are almost entirely guys—who don’t seem to understand city-building. And we have to live with their crap.

Meredith Management’s John Rosenthal, a second-generation developer, originally hired a remarkable architect, Carlos Zapata (of Chicago’s Soldier Field), to design a 1.3 million-square-foot Fenway Center project going up along Beacon Street and over the turnpike in the shadow of Fenway Park. Then came the compromise. In the interest of getting financing, he says, he ditched Zapata for the miserable Cambridge-based Architectural Team, known for the most stomach-churning kind of suburban “town-like” architecture. If you want to know what it looks like when a bank designs a building, check out the latest renderings.

After years of letting banks run the show, our muscles have atrophied. We don’t realize the power we could wield. We are busy building the fabric of our lives, and the fabric of our lives has turned out to be 100-thread-count polyester. So who’s supposed to be monitoring architecture around here, anyway?

 

The Boston Redevelopment Authority is a single agency that’s supposed to drive development while also regulating it; often, this has amounted to the fox watching the hen house, though its new director, Brian Golden, has pressed for more transparency in the approval process. With the mayor calling for better design, you might think Golden would be the person to implement Walsh’s will: Many people fantasize about the BRA strong-arming developers into giving a damn. But as city planner Kairos Shen says, “You don’t want design coming out of the ninth floor of City Hall.”

Instead, the city agency nominally tasked with approving the designs of major city projects is called the Boston Civic Design Commission (it goes by the rock ’n’ roll acronym BCDC), and this winter, Golden and BRA senior architect David Carlson went to meet with its members to learn what could be done to change the culture. The BCDC consists of 11 mayoral appointees, but they lack statutory authority. All of the current members are holdovers from the previous administration (there are no term limits), and many have served for more than a decade. It’s a chummy cabal made up of strong designers with good intentions—such as William Rawn, the architect behind the W Boston—but rather than judge a building’s overall design merit, they tiptoe around issues of taste and beauty, focusing instead on the more-practical issues of urbanism—how the building meets the ground, and what kinds of shadows it casts. The BRA doesn’t want the BCDC slowing down progress.

What’s worse, conflicts of interest on the BCDC are inevitable: The board includes a real estate lawyer from Goulston & Storrs (a firm whose client list is a who’s who of the city’s biggest developers), plus the principals of big firms that are doing the bulk of the design work here. When large projects are up for review, several such BCDC members often must recuse themselves—leaving the board operating without a full deck. It’s not hard to see why we keep ending up with uninspiring façades: The entire design-review process is a mere dalliance.

Full disclosure: I’m very fond of many of the individuals on the BCDC. Like everyone involved in this mess, they mean well. And in meeting with Golden, members of the BCDC complained to the BRA that they needed more time to consider the large, complex buildings they’d been asked to scrutinize. Instead of reviewing fully designed buildings a few weeks before they got the BRA’s green light, the board wanted to look at projects much earlier in the design process. Which sounds reasonable—a volunteer committee can’t rescue an architectural fail in a day. If you want good architecture, quality design (and oversight) has to be on the agenda from the start.

It’s just such a nice group of professionals, Shen says in their defense. They work very well together. In my opinion: to accomplish little.

Shen himself may be part of the problem. He’s the one guy who’s been monitoring architecture from the start, and the results speak for themselves. When I asked him what he thought about the deeply depressing design of 30 Dalton Street, he asked me if I was aware that the façade curved. Yes, it does have a slight curve to it. But a nearly imperceptible curve on a major building in Boston’s skyline is not going to save it from its Walmart pedigree. Later, the BRA sent me a follow-up email reminding me that the building had been approved under the Menino administration. Which is true, but Shen was the BRA’s chief planner then, too.

 

There is an opportunity, right now, for Boston to prove it’s taking design seriously: at 115 Federal Street at Winthrop Square. The city-owned garage on the site is up for grabs—one lucky group will get to build a 700-plus-foot tower in its place. But that group won’t be chosen on the basis of its design prowess. In fact, in its initial request for information, the BRA didn’t ask for architectural proposals at all. Teams didn’t even need to include an architect in their submissions. Instead, the privilege to transform Boston’s skyline is being treated much like a bid for the city’s trash-hauling contract. In the first round, anyway.

In some ways, the battle has already been lost. The original plan for the site, developed almost nine years ago, was a skinny, 1,000-foot spire designed by architectural god Renzo Piano. Then the FAA intervened, chopping 300 feet off Piano’s plan. In its place? A fat box, Boston’s signature architectural move. Piano walked.

Over the phone, Golden and Shen fret about the tower’s proportions. But wait—as planners, they could mandate setbacks to force a skinny tower out of the site. When you have a big plot of land and you want thin, make sure the new building’s height complements its width. Otherwise, you end up with a refrigerator box.

Planning could have prevented the Seaport’s stubby, faceless towers, too. The Big Dig’s traffic engineers created a mega-block layout that the city’s planners then failed to break down into smaller parcels. Big blocks and big lots—combined with a serious height restriction courtesy of the FAA—conspired to give us the worst American urban waterfront development in a generation. Which is emblematic of what happens here over and over and over. You’d think that architects, forced to work with these squat boxes, would have evolved into the most sophisticated façade designers in the world, to compensate in style for what we lack in proportions. Instead, we wrap our stubbies in glue, glass, and off-the-shelf panels.

The Seaport disaster also reveals our lack of overall vision: Real planners don’t put their office parks on the waterfront. That’s where people want to live—above the marinas, so they can sip their lattes while gazing out across the harbor at the sailboats and yachts. The best cities herd their workaday office buildings into the hinterlands, with good access via public transportation. Paris has its own office park, La Défense. Yes, it’s miserable, but it’s not blocking anyone’s views of Notre Dame. What does it say about us that our office park was whipped up with workmanlike gusto and plopped down on prime Boston Harbor frontage?

If Boston wants world-class architecture, it needs bolder, forward-thinking developers. It also needs to throw out the existing bureaucracy and build oversight into the system. We need big voices here, not polite conversation. It’s time for someone to say no.

Boston deserves a visionary architect who can lead the approval process from the get-go, and empower an independent design board, divorced from the demands of developers and the BRA, to monitor projects as they work through the system. To stimulate vigorous review and prevent nepotism, the new design-review board will need term limits. It should also include architects who don’t work in the city. Finally, we need robust, comprehensive, and innovative planning—in advance of development—to ensure that height and width result in pleasing proportions and energized streetscapes. And then, maybe someday, we won’t have to send our city’s leader to New York to see good design.

  • 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.