From the late nineteen fifties through the mid-nineteen seventies, Boston was at the forefront of architectural thinking, embracing concrete architecture in a mission to expand and transform the city. Whole new districts and vast infrastructural improvements were constructed, serving the needs of government, hospitals, universities and housing. Among architects, these buildings were both popular and influential.
Boston City Hall. Source: Wiki Commons
I presented an Architecture Forum discussing what to do with the aging concrete buildings of Boston. The presentation addressed the history of design and construction in monolithic concrete construction in our city. Additionally, I presented case studies regarding four approaches to the restoration or renovation of these buildings and led a discussion of what paths forward we as architects should be recommending and pursuing.
As Ada Louise Huxtable wrote of this period of exploration in concrete:
This era left Boston and the surrounding area with a legacy of monolithic concrete buildings – the count today is upwards of 1,700 concrete buildings. These buildings are part of the fabric of our city and region and they represent a historic period in our city’s history – a span of twenty years which we might term the “age of concrete.” Some of the most influential practitioners of architecture in our city were leading the charge to experiment in this material and some architects and historians see it as our duty to preserve this history of architectural exploration through the restoration of these buildings.
For its fans, concrete has many good qualities. It can be molded into any shape. It can symbolize permanence, as it does in Roman monuments like the Pantheon. To contemporary architects like Eric Howeler of Howeler Yoon, there is value in the fact that concrete weathers over time, with stains and erosions that map its age like the skin of a person. Though it is an ancient material, it also represented a deliberate break with the past, a march into a new world and a re-invented city – the “New Boston,” as it soon came to be called. This was not just an idea about a new kind of architecture, but in many cases, an idea about a new kind of society. Architects acted on bold ideas about what might be accomplished through architecture and urban design.
As Rami el Samahy writes:
However, while many influential architects were enamored of concrete construction, public opinion generally finds these buildings to be physically cold, austere and in some cases inhumane.
One major issue is that the Boston climate is the wrong climate for monolithic concrete: in our long cold winters, the concrete forms a thermal bridge, sending the heat out of the building and chilling the occupants. Additionally many of these buildings employed experimental methods of construction as well as experimental mechanical systems. Over time many of these “experiments” have resulted in buildings degrading quickly, or having indoor air quality problems and other mechanical issues. As times have changed, so too have our expectations for indoor comfort. Due to the nature of concrete construction, it is often very difficult or impossible to replace original mechanical systems with new systems that meet today’s standards due to duct sizes, floor-to-floor heights and architectural strategies that involve exposed concrete ceilings and systems.
We are now 50 years into the lifespan of many of these buildings; they are often despised by the public and beginning to decay. More and more often we as architects are asked to be arbiters in the process of deciding whether we should keep or destroy these buildings.
My question is: Is it truly our duty as architects to preserve these buildings for their value to history? Should we fight to maintain these buildings as monuments to a period of heroic architecture? Or should we instead propose new ways forward?
There are four basic approaches to buildings of this type: restoration, limited renovation, gut renovation with recladding and demolition. None of these approaches is perfect and all are controversial both with architects and the greater public.
RESTORATION: returns the building to its original conditions and removes subsequent alterations/renovations/additions that have altered the original design intent.
LIMITED RENOVATION: renovates the building to meet the current needs of the owner including demolishing some original walls and structural elements. Creating limited additions and upgrading mechanical systems – the original building would still be recognizable after a limited renovation.
GUT RENOVATION + RE-CLADDING: demolishes all or most of the original walls, creating new openings and re-clads the building so that it no longer has concrete as the exterior finish material. In this approach, the original building is no longer recognizable. The building would maintain its concrete structure, but would no longer be a monolithic concrete building. The original architect would not recognize his own building.
DEMOLITION: demolishes all of the existing building and provides the opportunity to replace it with a new structure.
I would argue that as architects we serve the needs of the public and our clients – we are not and should not be in the business of preserving buildings as historical artifacts unless they are indeed iconic masterworks. This “age of concrete” was a rich age in Boston’s history, but I posit that we should be selective in which buildings we fight to preserve and which we engage in a creative process to renew for new purposes. In every era there will be masterworks, workhorses and junk – there is a fine line to walk between preserving the masterworks, re-tooling the workhorses and demolishing the junk.
You can view my presentation here. This presentation uses images gathered from the sources listed below, and was chiefly inspired by “The Heroic Project.”
Core discussion topics that followed my presentation were:
- What differentiates a landmark building?
- How do we determine a cost/benefit analysis that helps a client map the best path forward for their property?
- What are the responsibilities of architects to determine the future of their buildings?
- It is appropriate to recommend demolition to our clients?
- Deterioration issues particular to our climate
- Re-cladding strategies and materials
“For Concrete, Climate Change May Mean a Shorter Lifespan,” Kevin Hartnett, The Boston Globe.
“The Restoration Era,” by Joseph Giovannini, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Paul Rudolph’s Brutalism, Reworked, At Umass Dartmouth,” Robert Cambell, The Boston Globe
“Renovation Slowly Adds Some Light To Lollipops”, Robin Pogrebin, The New York Times
“The Heroic Project: An Exhibit and Book Documenting Mid-Century Boston,” Mark Pasnik, Chris Grimley, Michael Kubo