View Full Version : Speed, Caution: Architecture and Language in the Back Bay

02-11-2008, 08:52 PM
From this week's Banker & Tradesman (subscription required)

Speed, Caution: Architecture and Language in the Back Bay
By Jeff Stein
Contributing Writer

Niketown, located 200 Newbury St. in Boston?s Back Bay neighborhood, employs form and materials to speak to pedestrians, up close and personal. A highly detailed and complex building, it speaks clearly to 25,000 pedestrians who walk slowly past it each week.

Usually, people can tell where in the world they are by the common language being spoken around them. The sound and rhythm of people?s speech, the order of signs and words on a page, are patterns that allow us not only to understand ideas but also to understand their cultural context.

Language and understanding: It is the same in the world of architecture. Designers employ an architectural language of materials, proportions, color, texture, form and connections that respond to local surroundings, to climate and to historic tradition so that we know where we are. This is how buildings convey meaning about time and place, how they speak about the importance of their inhabitants and their relationships to each other and to neighbors.

In Boston?s Back Bay neighborhood are three buildings designed by a single Boston architecture firm, CBT/Childs, Bertman, Tseckares. All three were constructed within a few years of each other and stand within a few blocks of each other. The three, responding to specific audiences, are very distinct from one another other; they speak different languages. And while there is much argument about the architectural unity Boston displays ? people point to red brick and bay windows as recognizable characteristics of the Hub ? in fact, in terms of its architectural language, Boston is very much a multilingual city.

But understanding architectural language depends both on speaker and audience. It depends on where and how we receive the information buildings provide. Are we standing still, right next to the building? If not, how far away are we? And at the beginning of the 21st century, the question is always, are we in an automobile? If so, how fast are we moving?

The building at 111 Huntington Ave., a 36-story office tower clad in mirrored glass, is a building that speaks to us only at a distance and at a glance. Its location, adjacent to a busy section of Huntington Avenue, six lanes of fast automobile traffic with no pedestrians in sight, requires the quick gesture. What this building has to say must come at us in language that is shouted from far off; there is no time or space for subtlety.

So we cannot learn much about this building up close. It is hard to understand, in fact, where the tower actually sits on the ground, its base hidden behind other buildings that appear connected to it. How can we tell from inside our cars? And since we are inside speeding cars, the architects do not provide traditional details, proportional signals or rich materials for our edification, and for good reason: We could never appreciate them because of our speed.

This building can only communicate by means of overall form. That form, especially near its rounded top, does allow 111 Huntington to converse with the nearby dome of the Christian Science Mother Church. Mayor Thomas Menino famously declares it was he who designed the curved crown atop this tower, and many architects joke they are quietly relieved to let him take credit, too. The fact remains, though, that this is the only part of the building that speaks and what it has to say is in some deference to its elder neighbor, the historic Christian Science Church.

A city block away is CBT?s most recent project, the Mandarin Oriental Boston hotel and condominium, a great cliff of architecture, all raw-boned and stretching along the 700 block of Boylston Street. This is the shady, south side of the street, so its block-long facade of tan brick and punched windows ? and some sort of universal cast stone that defies easy identification ? is always, and unfortunately, in shadow. The building?s audience is also mostly in shadow, inside their cars; but here they are traveling more slowly than on Huntington. So, while traditional three-dimensional architectural details go missing here too, the material itself and the building?s overall proportions fulfill its urban-design purpose: to contain the linear space of Boylston Street as it marches east toward the Public Garden.

Boylston, once an actual boundary that separated Boston?s Back Bay from the South End, always has had difficulty finding its common architectural language. Especially troublesome is this block, which within living memory was a railway switchyard, a ditch 20 feet below the edge of the street. In that regard, the Mandarin fills in what was once a big hole in the conversation along Boylston. The building?s construction is not quite complete; yet its language again speaks especially to automobile travelers, to people at some middle distance from it, whose time in its presence is brief.

One block north is Niketown, located at 200 Newbury St., anchoring the corner of Newbury and Exeter streets. At home among the red bricks of its historic neighbors, its detail, color and proportions take local architectural conversation to a new and more sophisticated level. Here is a skillful use of the language of color and material: From a distance the color is red, but close inspection reveals red material that is not brick, rather it is sandstone, much more exotic, with richer shadows and light refractions. This material allows the building to speak the language of Newbury Street, but with an accent that is somewhat more interesting, a bit extraordinary. And while the building?s windows celebrate a product ? Nike shoes and clothing ? their size and proportion also celebrate the people passing by. The building reaches out to shelter people at its entrances. And its walls meet the ground with a base course of stone that actually extends onto the sidewalk, and extends the building?s presence out there too.

Because the audience for Niketown is on foot, and in its presence for a longer time, the building has more to say. CBT has employed color, materials, three-dimensional details and elements at the scale of the human body in complex ways that ask for our attention. It is satisfying when we pay attention; time is on our side in this architectural conversation.

Architectural language can help us know where we are, make us feel at home, add to our understanding of place, and of our place in the world. The work of using architectural language to design urban buildings is twofold. First it is to find a pattern, to discover the rules of language that have always been used to interpret and explain a place; in this CBT has been successful in all three of their projects.

But then the work is to recast those rules in your own image, not just repeat the story earlier buildings have begun, but take architectural conversation to a new level for a new time. The storyteller ? and architecture is a storytelling art ? must tell the story of place in his or her own voice. This is a more difficult undertaking than is commonly imagined.

Try this for yourself. Out and about in the city, look closely to recognize the pattern that defines a place, and then imagine how you would refresh that pattern if it were up to you. This is what we expect of architects. Let?s start a conversation.

Source: Speed, Caution: Architecture and Language in the Back Bay (http://www.bankerandtradesman.com/issues/5_323/design/)