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View Poll Results: Pick just three buildings that best exemplify architecture as art:
City Hall 30 55.56%
Hurley Building 17 31.48%
Carpenter Center 19 35.19%
Stata Center 12 22.22%
Hancock Tower 26 48.15%
Christian Science Center 20 37.04%
Hauser Hall 0 0%
Rowe's Wharf 12 22.22%
75 State Street 3 5.56%
Federal Reserve Bank 6 11.11%
Multiple Choice Poll. Voters: 54. You may not vote on this poll

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Old 10-21-2008, 12:55 PM   #1
ablarc
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The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

THE ART OF MODERN ARCHITECTURE IN BOSTON

On this board we see architecture mostly in aesthetic terms. We debate a building?s massing, materials, surfaces, detailing and workmanship much as if it were a work of art.

Yet today --as ever-- few buildings actually rise to the level of art.

A century and a half ago, buildings with artistic aspirations were often referred to as ?high? architecture and designed by architects, while more common run-of-the-mill background buildings were referred to as ?low? architecture and not designed by architects.

Because of mission creep instituted by state architectural licensing boards, even the smallest and most insignificant modifications to commercial, institutional or multifamily residential buildings now require an architect?s participation. A loading dock canopy, however, is rarely an instance of the art of architecture.

I think we can agree that a building by Jung/Brannen also fails the test. At the spectrum?s other end, few would dispute that Pei?s Hancock Building richly qualifies. You can add to that list the same architect?s Christian Science Center. After that, you?re bound to get some arguments from those who set art?s bar high.

Boston hosts a few early modernist buildings attributed to Walter Gropius (Harkness Commons; Gropius House, Lincoln), but Boston?s Modernism can be judged a post-Sixties phenomenon.

In 1932, Philip Johnson, in his first incarnation as MoMA?s architectural curator, produced an epochal exhibition titled ?The International Style.? In the exhibition catalog he ticked off Modernism?s virtues: unadorned white planes, horizontal windows, asymmetry, structural ?honesty,? cantilevers, and above all, freedom from ornament. Finding no American examples, he grudgingly included Hood?s McGraw-Hill and Daily News Buildings while taking issue with the former?s impure coloration and decorative top (clearly deco) and the latter?s bas reliefs.

A modern building?s artistic merit is judged by different criteria from those we?d use for the Custom House or Chrysler Building. These rely on devices that modernism disdained as arbitrary, ornamental and decadent.

That of course is precisely what we like about the Chrysler Building, now rehabilitated and again esteemed. But in the mid-sixties Modernism had sold its message to the public, which is what accounts for the relatively modest outcry over Penn Station?s demise. After all, something much better than Penn Station?s derivative symbolism and suspended plaster vaults had just been built across town: Saarinen?s TWA Building. Here was a building that looked forward to the jet age, not backward to the age of steam.

Here?s a reprise of the list of Modernist and Postmodern Boston buildings that might qualify as art in the eyes of an art historian. It?s not a long list, and it?s in order by how secure I personally reckon is the building?s long-term hold on its status as art. Only the first six indisputably qualify, imo. With the exception of the Federal Reserve, the last four are estimable buildings with strong virtues, especially in their urbanism, but they don?t display the intellectual consistency, organizational rigor and passion of true art --which is inherently monumental.

The three best buildings on this list are currently much hated by the public and many members of this board. This is a natural condition of their Brutalist style?s current unfashionability and will abate with time --if they survive the next decade:

City Hall (Kallmann & McKinnell, 1968)
Hurley Building (Rudolph, 1971)
Carpenter Center (Le Corbusier, 1964)
Stata Center (Gehry, 2004)
Hancock Building (Pei, 1976)
Christian Science Center (Pei, 1974)
Hauser Hall (Kallmann & McKinnell, 1994)
Rowe?s Wharf (SOM, 1988)
75 State Street (Gund, 1988)
Federal Reserve Bank (Stubbins, 1983)

Beton Brut: sorry for the omission of Aalto?s MIT dorm and the collected works of J-L. Sert (Peabody Terrace, BU Law Tower, Holyoke Ctr., Science Center).

Another list. This one is of recent eyecatchers that enjoy varying amounts of approval, but don?t really qualify as art, IMO:

111 Huntington (CBT, 2001)
Institute of Contemporary Art (Diller & Scofidio, 2006)
Simmons Hall (Holl, 2002)
Apple Store (BCJ, 2007)


ART HISTORY OF (MODERN) ARCHITECTURE

Not too long ago the Teutonic scholar Siegfried Giedion collaborated with modernist architects to decide what was modern architecture and what was not. In a weighty tome purporting to trace the course of architectural history from about the French (or Industrial) Revolution to the time he was writing in the Fifties, Siegfried laid down the ground rules for consideration of architecture as art.

His magnum opus, Space, Time and Architecture, is noteworthy more for its omissions than its inclusions. You look in vain for serious discussion of the Empire State Building, Woolworth, Chrysler, Grand Central, Penn Station, the Fontainebleau, Mussolini?s mad Milano Stazione Centrale or Speer?s Kanzlei. Though socialist in his leanings and Stalinist in his selective presentation of history?s greatest hits, Giedion also omits Moscow?s wedding cakes from his chronicle.

The reason is quite simple: here is laid out a linear timeline of the orderly development of an idea. Purged of all messy detours, deviations or counterproposals, Giedion tells the tale of Modernism?s inevitable linear development: history as inexorable force. This is shown to have goose-stepped from Ledoux and Schinkel, through Morris, Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc, by way of Richardson, Sullivan and Wright succeeding each other like railroad cars, past Adolf Loos to the full flowering of Gropius, Mies and Corbu.

With this last trio architecture had arrived at its inevitable terminus. These three luminaries were the Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo of their age, the classic fulfillment for which history had so long yearned.

Thereafter ?for the art-historical cycle to be complete as described by Woelfflin-- only mannerism and baroque elaboration remained to be accomplished. This was conveniently provided by Saarinen, Rudolph, Breuer and perhaps Nervi.

Even the redoubtable Vincent Scully bought this edited version of recent architectural history; his slim, seminal and popular volume, Modern Architecture, shows a similar disregard for the Beaux-Arts and Deco; maybe that?s why he thundered only mildly at Penn Station?s impending death.

With nowhere left to go stylistically and modernism corroding what was left of our cities, post-modernism seemed a natural. It turned out to be a flash in the pan, but it introduced much-needed eclecticism into modernism?s severe and constrained vocabulary.

We?re currently in the throes of a modernist revival.

.

Last edited by ablarc; 10-21-2008 at 02:13 PM.
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Old 10-21-2008, 02:39 PM   #2
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

What and where is Hauser Hall?

I think MIT's Kresge Auditorium and Chapel belong on your list. Both are well-liked Modernist buildings.
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Old 10-21-2008, 02:47 PM   #3
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

Well, there goes the rest of my afternoon...

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Originally Posted by ablarc View Post
Finding no American examples, he (Philip Johnson) grudgingly included Hood?s McGraw-Hill and Daily News Buildings while taking issue with the former?s impure coloration and decorative top (clearly deco) and the latter?s bas reliefs.
Frank Lloyd Wright's unbuilt concept house, the "House on a Mesa" was also part of this exhibition. Though strongly linear, like an earlier Prairie House, there are elements that found their way into Fallingwater, and a couple of the Usonion "Automatic" houses. The inverted stepped windows can be found in the little house he did in Carmel, CA in the 50's.

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After all, something much better than Penn Station?s derivative symbolism and suspended plaster vaults had just been built across town: Saarinen?s TWA Building. Here was a building that looked forward to the jet age, not backward to the age of steam.
Never thought of that. Does this make Saarinen proto-PoMo?

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With the exception of the Federal Reserve, the last four are estimable buildings with strong virtues, especially in their urbanism, but they don?t display the intellectual consistency, organizational rigor and passion of true art --which is inherently monumental.
The Federal Reserve is horrible urbanistically. But it's a seminal building, in that it is the father of Foster's HSBC tower. And for good or ill, it's highly sculptural. I give it a pass. Stubbins was a good architect -- no one knows that his best work was residential. Good luck finding one of those homes in Boston's western suburbs. They've all likely been replaced by McMansions.

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Beton Brut: sorry for the omission of Aalto?s MIT dorm and the collected works of J-L. Sert (Peabody Terrace, BU Law Tower, Holyoke Ctr., Science Center).
No need to apologize for omitting Baker, ablarc, though I am curious why it didn't make the cut.

Aalto's always represented another path to Organic Architecture, one where the grid is cast aside. Yet the man was not without fault. I once read that Steve McQueen told his stage combat instructor, a young man named Chuck Norris, that he should pursue acting as a career. In the same vein, Alvar Aalto gave a lecture in Toronto in the 40's that was attended by a sixteen-year-old Frank Gehry.

Sert was a competent architect, but not a master by any stretch. Nothing of his qualifies a sublime. I only mention him from time to time because there is so much of his work around town.

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Thereafter ?for the art-historical cycle to be complete as described by Woelfflin-- only mannerism and baroque elaboration remained to be accomplished. This was conveniently provided by Saarinen, Rudolph, Breuer and perhaps Nervi.
I like that you mention Nervi. From an art history perspective, where does Oscar Niemeyer fit into all of this? He's a lot more than a mere Corbu acolyte.

Thanks for demanding that we think, ablarc. Thinking is the sole source of sanity in my life...

Last edited by Beton Brut; 10-21-2008 at 08:30 PM.
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Old 10-21-2008, 02:49 PM   #4
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

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What and where is Hauser Hall?
Kallmann and McKinnell's Richardsonian chunk in the Harvard Law School Quad.

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I think MIT's Kresge Auditorium and Chapel belong on your list. Both are well-liked Modernist buildings.
I agree, and if the poll program had allowed more than ten choices, they would have been there.
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Old 10-21-2008, 03:08 PM   #5
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

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Stubbin's was a good architect -- no one knows that his best work was residential. Good luck finding one of those homes in Boston's western suburbs. They've all likely been replaced by McMansions.
Funny you should mention that. While back, I designed a house for a lady who'd just agreed to sell her Stubbins house to a nursing home that craved its lot for expansion space. Spent several nights in that house; though beautiful and atmospheric, it was a maintenance nightmare. The solar/radiant heat rarely worked.

Lady had been bitten by the bug. For all its faults, she opined, once you've lived in an architect's house, you can never go back. I designed her something really impractical.
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Old 10-21-2008, 03:25 PM   #6
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

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I designed her something really impractical.
Good story. Did she build your design?

My affection for Stubbins' residential work stems from the fact that I had the accidental good fortune of seeing some really beautiful drawings on display at my undergraduate school, maybe in 1989. Lots of banded wood and ship-lap siding and big fireplaces -- Wright & Aalto, given over to critical regionalism. No wonder it struck a chord with me.
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Old 10-21-2008, 03:32 PM   #7
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

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Good story. Did she build your design?
Oh, yeah. She used to call me in the middle of the night. "I'm sitting in the darkened house gazing at the moon through the oculus you provided. How did you know I wanted to do that?"

Every architect needs such a client.
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Old 10-21-2008, 07:52 PM   #8
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

It is no coincidence that Gropius, Mies, and Corbu are all European and all were devastated by the World Wars. Their architecture was a refutation of European history and tradition which they saw as having lead to the tragedy of the wars. So they rejected all historical forms and heritage in an attempt to start anew. I view the importation of their ideas into the US as a great tragedy of American architecture--where we had no reason to see history as tragic and in need of refutation-- and which should have developed from Wright, but instead it was their ideas which spread like an invasive species intoduced into a ew environment. Hopefully their ideas will prove to have been an evolutionary dead end and we can get back on the path from Richardson to Sullivan to Wright.
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Old 10-21-2008, 08:47 PM   #9
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

Gropius, Mies, Corbu and European Modernism: if not for them, we'd have been building nice Deco cities all this time.

Art Deco: American Modernism?

.

Last edited by ablarc; 10-21-2008 at 09:10 PM. Reason: typo
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Old 10-21-2008, 09:01 PM   #10
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

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We?re currently in the throes of a modernist revival.
Which means? (fascinating, by the way. i'm on the edge of my seat.)
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Old 10-21-2008, 09:16 PM   #11
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

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Which means?
Well, overt postmodernism went the way of the Dodo, while its best urbanistic features were gently folded into modernism's batter, together with a newfound freedom in eclecticism. That's what gives you Foster, Herzog and DeMeuron, Nouvel, Calatrava, Gehry.
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Old 10-21-2008, 09:30 PM   #12
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

In a way, it's all art. Like all art, these works can be evaluated against multiple criteria, and, much of that criteria is subjective (eye of beholder and all that). Some criteria, like certain technical performances, are objective. Not all their failures or successes as buildings can be attributes to their 'authors.' And unlike what we have come to think of as 'normative' art - there are no single actors that can claim authorship of buildings. Not even the architects. Buildings are more like movies than 'pieces' of art - everyone down to the key grip somehow influenced a building. But unlike movies, they are not static creations, but ones that evolve through time.
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Old 10-21-2008, 09:34 PM   #13
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

> Christian Science Center (Pei, 1974)

Pei of the same era.

A bit derivative, but not bad. Not nearly as filthy and unloved as its older sibling here in Scollay Square. Mumbles should hire their landscaper.
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Old 10-22-2008, 06:27 AM   #14
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

Some observations on the poll so far:

1. Not surprisingly, those who hang around this forum the most were the first to respond.

2. Those first responders tilted heavily towards the first two buildings on the list. In fact, when ten people had voted, City Hall was still at 100.00%.

3. Hancock started showing strength fairly early on and gathered momentum as less frequent participants responded. It's now number two.

Some preliminary conclusions (an oxymoron?):

1. Respecting City Hall and Hurley is an acquired taste, like Limburger cheese; the more you hang around this forum, the more likely you are to have acquired it.

2. Corbusier also showed early strength, then faded.

3. No one has yet voted for Hauser Hall; it's likely that many, like Ron, can't identify this well-hidden minor masterpiece (can't be seen from any public street).
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Old 10-22-2008, 08:43 AM   #15
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

You should have included pix's ,I never heard of some the buildings on this list
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Old 10-22-2008, 08:51 AM   #16
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

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You should have included pix's ,I never heard of some the buildings on this list
Image google them with "Boston" or "Cambridge" and you'll find them.
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Old 10-22-2008, 09:04 AM   #17
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

Except for Hauser, these are all very well-known buildings. How could you not know them?
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Old 10-22-2008, 09:23 AM   #18
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Except for Hauser, these are all very well-known buildings. How could you not know them?
I had to google a couple of them - Carpenter Center and Hurley Building. I see both of them on a pretty regular basis, but I don't know them by name very well. Also, it's good to see photos of the buildings side-by-side before voting, rather than judging by memory. If not for that, I would have voted differently.
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Old 10-22-2008, 09:39 AM   #19
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

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Except for Hauser, these are all very well-known buildings. How could you not know them?
That was one(Hauser) of them, Carpenter building?
I probaly know them just not by their correct name
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Old 10-22-2008, 09:51 AM   #20
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Re: The Art of Boston's Modern Architecture

I realize it's just message board but I didn't vote simply because I'm not familiar with a few of the buildings on the list. Didn't seem fair. I could vote based on photos but I think experiencing buildings like these in person give a vastly different impression than clicking thru a flickr set.

As an aside, I'm surprised to see Rowes Wharf make the cut. It is a great building and the arch is certainly monumental, but as a whole it doesn't seem as 'artistic' as the other buildings.
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