Built in 1895, the McKim Building is massive and delicate at the same time. To its right is the 1972 Johnson Building, simplistic and gloomy. Thus we have Boston City Hall (voted the world’s[!] ugliest building by the website virtualtourist.com); the massive, meandering State Health, Education and Welfare Services Center on Staniford Street; the three JFK federal buildings across from City Hall; and the behemoth, view-blocking Congress Street garage.
Sometimes it’s money that keeps them in place; tearing down and rebuilding is expensive. Sometimes ugly seems to become its own virtue (a piece not long ago in the Globe was titled, “In praise of ugly buildings”). Then too, preservationists and others who should know better treat buildings like inviolable artworks.
The difference, of course, is that a bad painting can be put in storage. There’s nowhere to hide a bad building.
If you’re familiar with the buildings in my list, you’re probably aware that most of them are from the 1960s and 1970s. They were designed by some of that era’s best-known names, including Gerhard Kallmann, Michael McKinnell, Paul Rudolph, and Walter Gropius.
Philip Johnson was also one of those talents. A productive designer who lived and worked well into his 90s, he created some great buildings — just not in Boston. To a degree, the BPL project forced some tough constraints on Johnson, including matching up the new building’s height to the much beloved McKim. What we ended up getting with Johnson’s building was a dumbed-down echo of its predecessor (it even uses the same shade of granite). One engages the eye and entrances the mind. The other stupefies.
So what went wrong? Blame the era, perhaps, one of turmoil and change that rejected the past and celebrated a coarse modernism. Blame also the power of government to force its will and a near-disdain for community involvement.
Architects have learned a lot from those days. Current design more consciously cares about users as well as the relationships buildings have to each other and the street. Then too, it’s hard to imagine any of the buildings on my list of uglies getting approved today; the outcry would be too much. That’s a good thing. It means we aren’t necessarily doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, it does seem our doom that the mistakes of the past are too often part of our present.
In two Boston library buildings, best and worst of public architecture - Opinion - The Boston Globe
A great analysis of the failure of public architecture in some of Boston’s most noted buildings.