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Old 08-28-2009, 01:04 PM   #1
Shepard
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High Spine

Other threads about the Back Bay skyline made me remember this Robert Campbell article from back a few years ago - not sure how many people have seen or remember this.

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ARCHITECTURE
Boston's tall buildings reflect an inspired idea
The High Spine now gives city its center and shape
By Robert Campbell, Globe Correspondent | February 26, 2006

The High Spine. The Dorsal Fin. The Hogback. Call it what you want.

It's Boston's spiky backbone of tall buildings. They run in a narrow, meandering path from downtown out along the line of Boylston and Huntington. The peaks in this chain of vertebrae are the Pru and the Hancock, but there are lots of others. And more towers are in the works.

The High Spine -- that's its proper name -- gives the city a visible center and a shape it never had before. It also reminds the skeptical among us that big city-planning ideas aren't always something to be scared of.

Many of my readers don't like tall buildings. They'd endorse the mantra of the conservative architect Leon Krier, adviser to Prince Charles, who says: ''All tall buildings are vicious and immoral."

But the Spine is good for Boston in a lot of ways. Here's one of them. Pre-Spine, if you stood on a street corner in, say, Roxbury, you had no way of perceiving where you were in the larger city. Or how far you were from anything else.

Post-Spine, that's changed. You can see the skyline of towers from almost any location. By so doing, you can get your bearings. You can measure how far you are from other neighborhoods, which is likely to be closer than you thought. It's only a little more than a mile as the crow flies from the Pru to Dudley Square -- just a brisk 20-minute walk. Looking at the Spine, you're aware of that closeness.

The Spine is part of the DNA of Boston, governing its shape and its growth. But where did it come from? Did it just happen? Did Boston grow organically, like a fish or a tree?

That's what's interesting. The Spine is an example of the extraordinary power that a single idea can have over the life of a city, even after its origins are almost forgotten. The High Spine was dreamed up, and given that name, by a small group of architects back in 1961. The architects were members of something called the Committee on Civic Design, part of the Boston Society of Architects.

Recently I visited the committee's founder and chair, Robert Sturgis, now 78, at the house he designed in the 1950s for himself and his family in Weston. Sturgis is the living memory of architecture in Boston, and his basement is an amazing archive of material. It includes a huge cardboard-and-wood model of central Boston, with the Spine shown as a row of white towers.

At the time, the only tall building on the site of the future Spine was the squat John Hancock of 1947. But the force of change was in the air. The Pru complex would soon be in construction, and there was pressure from City Hall (hard to believe, but true) to erect a high-rise on every corner of the Back Bay.

Sturgis gave me a copy of the original 1961 report. It makes pretty interesting reading. Some quick quotes:

''Since a city's skyline is an important trademark and the means of recognition from a distance, the arrangement of its tallest buildings is of primary architectural concern."

''To avoid a meaningless mixture of high buildings in areas such as the Back Bay, it appears reasonable to restrict the areas reserved for the highest buildings."

''The High Spine as a structural backbone should be reinforced on each side by a circulation system consisting of surface arteries and underground rapid transit."

''A free shuttle system would facilitate pedestrian movement along the Spine and would eliminate the need for most auto access." (Never done, but not a bad idea.)

The High Spine was an idea of genius for at least three reasons.

First: It directed growth to a narrow corridor, a sort of no man's land, between the Back Bay and the South End. The Spine thus made it possible for Boston to grow tall without invading either of these beautiful historic neighborhoods.

Second: It placed tall buildings where they belong, along major transportation routes. The Orange Line, the commuter rail, Amtrak, wide streets such as Huntington and Boylston, and the subsurface spine of the Mass Pike all pass along or beneath the Spine, serving its dense buildings directly.

Finally: The Spine preserves, in its shape, a memory of the original Boston, which was a small peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow, spinelike isthmus of land. The Spine shapes the city in accord with its basic DNA.

The report notes that the future Spine would be interrupted by two squares, Copley and Park. It proposes that two new ones be added at the Spine's ends. One would be a green extension of Kenmore Square. The other would be a great ''South Square" at the place where the Spine reached the harbor, a place that might be a transportation center with ''ocean liners, helicopters, rail lines, autos and buses." We haven't quite got there, but Rowes Wharf is a beginning.

There were 11 architects on the committee. Primary credit for the Spine, however, is usually given to the committee's consultant, city planner Kevin Lynch of MIT.

The High Spine concept became lodged in the minds of developers, politicians, planners, and architects, many of whom don't even know that they know it. Its influence has been enormous. We're still building it.

Would a Spine have developed on its own, without the work of the Committee on Civic Design? You can't prove it, but I don't think so.

Today, 45 years after the fact, the High Spine has lessons for us. Today's world is more populist, more democratic than that of 1961. We're less trusting of experts and professionals. Too many mistakes were made, too many neighborhoods demolished, too many ugly buildings built, too many superhighways shoved through the delicate fabric of older cities. Today, we prefer to do our planning in endless community meetings in which everyone has a say.

On the whole, that's good. But it shouldn't blind us to the skills of trained professionals and the value, sometimes, of bold ideas. The Spine reminds us that big ideas don't have to be brutal. They can nurture the city.

Robert Campbell is the Globe's architecture critic. He can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.
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Old 08-28-2009, 03:45 PM   #2
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Re: High Spine

Critics have argued that this really amounts to building a wall between the Back Bay and the South End, cutting half of the city off from the other half just as severely as the Central Artery cut off the North End from the rest of the city.
Also, his discussion of how the city was originally an isthmus would be interesting of the spine actually followed that original strip of land-- which goes through the middle of the South End now--but it doesn't, it would be built on landfill. I'm not necessarily against the idea, I just don't think these arguments are very good.
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Old 08-28-2009, 04:41 PM   #3
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Re: High Spine

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Originally Posted by Joe_Schmoe View Post
Critics have argued that this really amounts to building a wall between the Back Bay and the South End, cutting half of the city off from the other half just as severely as the Central Artery cut off the North End from the rest of the city.
It is not the height of buildings that creates a wall effect, but the width. I'm stating the obvious, right?

I'm a big fan of the "High Spine" on the south side of Boylston and look forward to it filling in with the new pru towers, and branching over the pike (can a spine branch?)
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Old 08-28-2009, 05:31 PM   #4
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Re: High Spine

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Originally Posted by Justin7 View Post
(can a spine branch?)
Does it never NOT?

Have you removed the skeleton from a trout lately?

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Old 08-31-2009, 08:22 AM   #5
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Re: High Spine

Don't know how the "wall" argument carries water, since thousands of people use the Pru as a pass-through, daily. It's a way to escape the elements (I go the long-way/out of my way sometimes if it means I can stay dryer/cooler for longer.)
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Old 08-31-2009, 10:45 AM   #6
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Re: High Spine

I see the canyon also known as the Pike as more of a divider. Construction over the Pike as well as the high spine only fills in the urban fabric. However, what the high spine needs is diversity, as in, not all commercial space. It needs to include high end condo as well as affordable tenements. As much as we hate commieblocks, they do a really good job providing a place for lower income residents to reside. Put some mix-use towers and amenities at the pedestrian levels like parks, (maybe a raised park similar to the one at Metropolitan Building down in Chinatown.), supermarket, theater, YMCA, a preschool or a baby sitting center, etc and it will blend right into the neighborhood.
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Old 08-31-2009, 10:59 AM   #7
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Re: High Spine

^^ Avalon apartments, Shaws, etc?
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Old 08-31-2009, 01:04 PM   #8
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Re: High Spine

we are well on our way to proposing columbus center 2.o
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Old 08-31-2009, 08:24 PM   #9
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Re: High Spine

Quote:
Originally Posted by Joe_Schmoe View Post
Critics have argued that this really amounts to building a wall between the Back Bay and the South End, cutting half of the city off from the other half just as severely as the Central Artery cut off the North End from the rest of the city.
Walls aren't always a bad thing.

The North End feels vulnerable without its main wall.

Back Bay has four walls.
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Old 08-31-2009, 08:42 PM   #10
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Re: High Spine

What was the 'main wall' of the North End? The elevated Central Artery?
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Old 09-01-2009, 02:07 AM   #11
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Re: High Spine

The North End is backed against the water and was walled off by the central artery.

Today it feels a bit naked. More isolated and farther away - like you have to leave the city to visit it.
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Old 09-01-2009, 08:02 AM   #12
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Re: High Spine

To me, the opposite is true -- removing that 'wall' brought the neighborhood closer to the rest of the city.
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Old 09-01-2009, 10:25 AM   #13
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Re: High Spine

It still feels very cut off, especially if taking the T to Haymarket. One arrives at a hulking garage without a sidewalk in site, and is immediately confronted and blocked first by buses, then by a road with cars going far too fast, and finally entirely stopped by highway ramps. The problem isn't the lack of the elevated road, but what has replaced it.
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Old 09-01-2009, 10:47 AM   #14
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Re: High Spine

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The problem isn't the lack of the elevated road, but what has replaced it.
Exactly. This area is proof positive that the Greenway does nothing to knit the fabric of the city back together.
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Old 09-01-2009, 05:37 PM   #15
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Re: High Spine

^ not yet. I personally think this section of the greenway will be very good. The plan to replace the gov't center garage is great in my opinion. The new apartments are a good state. The area to the north is slated for development that will bring life (albeit not great architecture). If the haymarket parcel 9 is developed accordingly, I think the only major thing to do that is not in the works is the ramp, which in time will be covered (I hope and believe).

Does anyone have any word on the gov't center garage btw? how is that movinG?
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