City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Part of Boston/Cambridge Diary series

Boston and Cambridge’s architecture is somehow simultaneously fascinating and somewhat disappointing. By which I mean there’s little of contemporary interest, outside a few flamboyant brushstrokes on the MIT campus recently (of which more later), which are entirely disconnected from the city. But any ‘old’ American city is fascinating as a result of growing up during industrialisation and growing down or sideways during postindustrialisation. So it’s largely a history tour, but no worse for that. There’s the usual bewildering mix of styles, imported and referenced; of ingenious vernacular solutions; of wonderfully optimistic rock solid edifices from the first half of the twentieth century; and of mundane responses to postmodernity and globalisation.

John Hancock Tower, reflective Wooden house, purple, close Yellow wooden house with trees Carpenter Center, windows and sky 1959 Chapel, exterior view Baker House, rear curve

Generalising massively, Boston didn’t appear to go for it during the ‘reach for the skies’ stage of urban development in the US. Go read Koolhaas’s Delirious New York for the definitive sense of that frenzied period. There’s little of that here. A couple of medium-sized hulking ‘scrapers downtown, but that’s it. The John Hancock Hall, of a 1940s vintage, is appropriately monolithic and Fountainhead. There’s a couple of much larger towers, which are extremely handy for wayfinding – the fairly ugly 1965 Prudential Building and the fine if flawed 1976 John Hancock Tower. The latter, by I.M. Pei, is one of the few later skyscrapers to really play up the ‘sheet of glass’ effect, to some acclaim. Regarding wayfinding, I’m chastened by a line from Lynch’s The Image of the City: “It is the novice who guides himself by reference to the John Hancock Building and the Custom House.” Ahem.

How to 'wayfind' using 'scrapers John Hancock Tower, blue

Pei’s ‘scraper keeps popping up everywhere due to its height and yet, being mirrored, can sometimes recede into the background, often using some sky to cunningly camoflage itself.

John Hancock Tower, peeking John Hancock Tower, from park John Hancock Tower, hiding in tree John Hancock Tower, reflective

But Boston’s downtown doesn’t cast shadows in the usual pyramidal form familiar to the cliched US city. Much of the architecture is respectably street-orientated. In fact, where it isn’t, it can cause well known problems. The book A Good City [UK|US] features several writers moaning about the wind tunnel effects of the ‘scraper’s form in downtown Boston – a big problem in a city which is apparently battered by heavy weather for a good-sized portion of the year.

“(The) close-packed plan that made Boston a walkable gem of a city is assaulted by today’s developers. High-rises soar above the human-scaled city. Their churning winds assail walkers and darken whole neighbourhoods in their shadow.” [From ‘On Location: Place and Politics in a Changing City’ by Jane Holtz Kay, in A Good City]

But this isn’t Manhattan, or Los Angeles, or even recent London – never mind the megacities of the Far East. There simply aren’t that many high-rises at all. Much of the interest was at ground level, or a couple of stories above.

The ‘triple deckers’ were a dominant architectural style I hadn’t really noticed before. These barreled fronts provide useful bay windows but also present an appropriately sturdy form to the street. They’re everywhere, in varying forms – Back Bay, Cambridge, Fenway, everywhere. Probably a darn good urban solution – flexible enough for private apartments; not too big to be a single wealthy household; strong enough to withstand the climate; capable of being jammed together in contiguous blocks …

"Triple-decker", Cambridge Tripledecker, reflected Fenway apartments

In terms of architectural detailing, there is a fair amount of embellishment around – as befits a city which harks back to a certain version of the Old World – but it’s clear that anything soft will be eroded quick smart. The delicate detailing in the soft stone building below in Back Bay, on an exposed street corner, has been progressively rubbed out by the notoriously rough winters.

Back Bay apartment, weathered

Beware: there are many fairly ugly gothic churches. And many of these are ‘real’ – the first few churches, or historical variations on them after fire claimed various versions, are still standing on street corners around the city centre. They’re originally dated around the 1660s, and much of it is amongst the oldest urban architecture in the United States. They’re pitted around the old city centre, their rose windows glimpsed through back alleys or marking street corners.

Rose window, glimpsed Gothic church, remodeled

Equally, you’re never quite sure whether something is 3 years old or 300 years old. Much of it is quite faux. Even the earlier buildings are referential, trying to create meaning in this New World by referring to an imaginary old one. For example, there are many 19th century red brick buildings with an unaccountable predilection for battlements and turrets.

John Hancock Tower, lurching

There is little architecture in Boston itself that seemed truly contemporary – at least in the style mag’s idea of the dominant architectural language of the day – as we see in many modern European cities. Or Los Angeles or Seattle, for that matter. This excerpt from the Beacon Hill Online community site makes clear what you’ll find in Boston’s older, highly-coveted neighbourhoods.

“Its architecture, mostly brick row houses, includes the Federal, Greek Revival and Victorian periods, as well as early 20th-century colonial revival homes and tenements. The architecture is protected by restrictive regulations that allow no changes to any visible part of a structure without the approval of an architectural commission.” [From]

In Cambridge, interestingly, it’s a different story. Cambridge is far more functional, and with the exception of the Harvard campus, the buildings there seem to have been centred around its industrial past and present. The aforementioned MIT campus is entirely functional and felt largely soulless, exceptions being some fine bits of residential architecture down by the Charles, specifically Alvar Aalto’s beautiful and recently restored Baker House (1947-48). [I’d briefly mentioned this before, and it was a real pleasure to see its beautiful bricks.]

Baker House, side Baker House, entrance, type Baker House, angular Baker House, side, windows Baker House, rear curve Baker House, rear, trees Baker House, front door

I’ve more images of MIT’s recent building programme to follow, but amidst all the rather less-spectacular science-park architecture around Kendall Square/MIT, it’s the low-road buildings that are more interesting. This particular crossing featured a disused building which just felt to have a lot of history about it. Could have just been the psychogeography talking.

'Low road' building, Main Street 'Low road' building, Main Street, from crossing

Further, this astonishingly robust warehouse, bragging of being fire-proof (asking for it, I reckon). I’ve no idea what’s in it now (save a Mexican restaurant on one corner) but it was strangely familiar from industrial warehouses I’d spent time in and around in Manchester. Equally, there seemed to be some reference to the vocabulary of ‘wild west’ US forts. Again, probably my projection.

Fireproof warehouse Fireproof warehouse, rear, with faded type Fireproof warehouse, side Fireproof warehouse, type

There’s a little more on the low-road architecture of Cambridge, as asides in my previous entry on the city. But elsewhere in Cambridge, down Puttnam Avenue, there are the classic wooden houses I’d witnessed previously in US campus towns (specifically Urbana-Champaign in Illinois), the odd US flag fluttering in the warm breeze. These are delightfully practical houses, as far as I can see, though don’t lend much density to the streets [see a section on urban form, later]

Wooden Houses, off Puttnam Avenue Wooden house, purple, close Wooden house, purple Wooden house, white, side Wooden House, white US flag against sky

In the Harvard campus, Swedish-style painted wooden houses welcome you in (I’m guessing that the North European settlers weren’t just British here). Yellow-on-blue-sky is a winning combination. This soon gives way to the well-known and well-loved Ivy League campus format mentioned previously – old Georgian squares inside the sanctum; concrete blocks with water features for the science kids outside.

Swedish style house Yellow wooden house, angle Yellow wooden house with trees Old Harvard University buildings Old Harvard University buildings New Harvard buildings, through old Harvard water feature

There was one aspect of the Harvard campus which really piqued my interest: the Le Corbusier-designed Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (1963). It’s his only major building in the United States – and quite, quite beautiful, imho.

“At the heart is a cubic volume from which curved studios pull away from one another on the diagonal. The whole is cut through by an S-shaped ramp which rises from one street and descends towards the other… The layers and levels swing out and back from the grid of concrete pilotis within, making the most of cantilevering to create interpenetrations of exterior and interior, as well as a sequence of spatial events linked by the promenade architecturale of the ramp.” [By William J.R. Curtis in Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, quoted at]

The promenade architecturale – or ramp, if you prefer – does have a beautiful sweep to it but I wonder if the handrails were there in the original sketches? I bet they weren’t. It would be even more beautiful without, but probably utterly impractical on a wet, cold, dark Cambridge evening. Sigh. Pesky human frailty. The art studios have exactly the kind of transparency which even MIT’s contemporary buildings lack, solid glass sheets that enable strong light for the artists within and compelling subjects for the voyeurs without. My camera gave up before I could capture the curvilinear ramp, but Google has plenty on this lovely building.

Carpenter Center, windows and sky Carpenter Center, main block Carpenter Center, looking up Carpenter Center, entrance ramp, railings Carpenter Center, entrance ramp

Outside of Harvard, you do find the other odd 20th century gem in Cambridge, such as this art nouveau shopfront, all but hidden within a copy-shop on Massachusetts Avenue near Harvard Square.

Art deco shopfront

Back over the Charles, in the Harvard Business School campus – which is otherwise entirely manicured simulacra, albeit a very pleasant fake to be in – there is a further 20th century gem: the Class of 1959 Chapel, designed by Moshe Safdie in 1992. It’s a cylindrical oxidised copper drum, with a triangular transparent water garden attached.

1959 Chapel, view 1959 Chapel, oxidised skin, in sun 1959 Chapel, entrance, in shadow 1959 Chapel, exterior with tree 1959 Chapel, exterior view 1959 Chapel, glass canopy, adjoining cylinder

The chapel itself is a wonderful space, built around the external cylindrical shape, with scoops in the tall ceiling to admit, and then refract, the light – feathering the white walls subtle dashes of rainbow. The roof’s prism casts the light throughout the chapel, balancing the only other objects inside – a puritan aesthetic of elegantly austere seating, a simple organ and the barest suggestion of an altar.

1959 Chapel, interior light around cylindrical roof 1959 Chapel, light through scooped ceiling 1959 Chapel, light, chairs 1959 Chapel, refracted light on chair 1959 Chapel, chairs close 1959 Chapel, rows of chairs 1959 Chapel, organ

The garden contained within the adjoining glass canopy may create odd echoes of the enclosed horticultural domes in Silent Running. OK, possibly not. But either way, it’s a warm, gently humid, contemplative space, air filled with the gurgle of small waterfalls, flowing over the regular patterns of concrete steps, into pools sprouting with fern and reed.

1959 Chapel, garden 1959 Chapel, glass canopy, interior 1959 Chapel, garden, water

Further photo-studded entries to follow on three buildings in the MIT campus: the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center, Steven Holl-designed Simmons Hall residential building and the IM Pei-designed Media Lab.


2 responses to “Boston/Cambridge Diary: Architecture”

  1. Barcelona Apartments Avatar

    Interesting quote, however I think the author of that quote has a very self-centered prespective on life. Not that it’s always a bad thing but it is something that should be considered when trying to put this quote into context of ones own life.


  2. California Realestate Avatar

    Its an amazing manmade architecture it…:)


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