Getting On Without Borders

While there are many tears among bibliophiles over the demise of bookstores in the Internet age — and even by city revenue managers over the loss of a major Borders bookstore downtown — there is one sense in which we need not mourn. The building will remain, and it is one of the finest in the city.

The building that houses Borders was built to house the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank in 1973 by the same architects who designed Boston City Hall: Kallman, McKinnell and Knowles. The building is important because it is a superb urban building. It creates a public space, reinforces but also improves the existing street network, and has a grandeur that eludes many modern buildings. And with that, the building’s public impact far outweighs the loss of its current tenant.

It’s interesting that we work so hard to save many older buildings whose public importance is marginal, but whose age alone seems to make those buildings significant. The Boston Five Cents Savings Bank is different. Its style is not historic; neither are its materials. Instead, the building interprets historical elements in a way that many architects attempt, but at which few succeed. It has a vast modern curtain wall behind eight concrete columns. What recently served as the main public space of the bookstore was conceived as the main banking hall, a grand clear-span with wonderful light that makes it a truly great room.

But it is also unarguably modern. While many in Boston have problems with the much more idiosyncratic, monumental, and free-standing Boston City Hall, I have never met anyone who doesn’t like the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank. Part of the reason for this is that the ambition of the Boston Five Cent Savings Bank is modest. It seeks to merge the street-scapes of School Street and Washington Street, while making a layered public entrance, that connects an exterior public space to an interior one. And all of these tasks are accomplished in one move. The curved façade holds the edge, while the columns hold the fan-shaped array of beams that form the interior space. The building has but one primary face.

By contrast, the tasks assigned to the Boston City Hall are infinitely more complex. The Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy, is often cited as the model for City Hall Plaza. But in that case, the city hall (Palazzo Pubblico) has one primary face, too. It sits at the base of the famed piazza providing its main façade. Boston City Hall is expected to sit as an object in the plaza, with all four sides visible and important. There is no place for a back door to our City Hall. Every place is the front, and this is one of many reasons that the kind of civic clarity found in Siena has always eluded our city hall.

Like old loft, market, and wharf buildings, the Boston Five Cent Savings Bank also embodies the very current idea of “future use” in that it can accommodate different uses as time passes. What was once a bank, turned into a bookstore/café, and will now become … well, we don’t really know. I certainly hope that it is a public use that will allow all Bostonians to continue to enjoy the space.

But we can rest assured that the corner of Washington and School Streets will remain in good architectural hands.


Update 12:34 pm: Removed note to correct a misidentified Borders location on Congress Street.