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Back Bay The City as Art

By Deborah R. Waroff

"Back Bay Boston: The City as a Work of Art" at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts through January 11, 1970

BOSTON'S BACK BAY certainly has attractive source material for a study of differences between the city-as-art and the more common American city-as-blight. Unfortunately, the Museum of Fine Arts current exhibit seems more consecrated to Boston's chauvinism than to urban design, and wastes a good deal of museum space and viewers time on biographical material about museum patrons with Back Bay addresses.

Clues to the making, maintenance and destruction of a fine cityscape are, however, secreted among a hodgepodge of what seems to be every available sketch, work and plan by every artist and architect who has ever worked in the Back Bay.

Back Bay's attractiveness was no accident-it was carefully planned even before the creation of the land Back Bay occupies. As the Museum's two introductory slide shows explain, the Back Bay, like 60 per cent of downtown Boston, was built on fill. Beginning in 1857, railroad cars brought gravel from Needham every hour, day and night. After more than 30 years the entire area from the Boston Public Garden past Massachusetts Avenue to Charlesgate and south as far as Huntington and Columbus Avenues had been filled to a depth of twenty feet.

All land use was planned and enforced by a commission. Industry was forbidden and commerce limited by zoning laws in most of Back Bay. The broad streets were laid out and planted with European grandeur in mind-the Commonwealth of Massachusetts gave 43 per cent of the land it had filled to streets and parks.

The commission insisted that houses maintain a consistent setback, and limited the heights of buildings. That sounds ordinary enough. But the solid even-block front is an honestly urban form, as well as a visually harmonious one. And these block fronts didn't become bleak. This is partly because of the plantings. But also, the buildings these Victorians built bulge with eclectic detail that interrupts the facade-plane. Oriel and bay windows bend out to gather light.

As the land was filled from the Public Garden westward, Bostonians erected the French Academism of Haussman's Paris, with mansard roofs and pedimented windows. Further west they built gabled Queen Anne houses in brick, and then the calmer white Neoclassicist homes. Finally, they returned to the Federalist style of an earlier America.

All this gives Back Bay streets a high-napped texture that our eyes can play over. And strict regulations, along with occasional groups of houses built as an overall composition, make this texture flow along the streets at a consistently human scale.

This magnificence was intended to provide proper and prosperous Bostonians with an elegant setting for their homes, churches, and cultural institutions. To assure Back Bay's future as an expensive showpiece, select families were allowed to buy land along Commonwealth Avenue at reduced rates. This strategy worked, and the fashionable migrated to the one-time mudflat.

OF COURSE, the Bostonians didn't fill in their Back Bay just because railroad trestles had made its water stagnant and putrid, or because they liked challenge. Back Bay represented the last development of Boston as a centralized city. The mother peninsula was cramped and almost completely developed-and before the suburban railroads and the auto, the city itself couldn't really expand across the water.

But in the twentieth century transportation allowed Boston to grow into a more decentralized metropolis. Migration to suburbs left Back Bay to its institutions, and more moved in to join them: junior colleges, the Boston Center for Adult Education, a recreation center for members of the Armed Forces, and dozens of others. Its population declined 13-7 per cent between 1950 and 1960, and is now 75 per cent female.

Back Bay's importance as an integral part of the central city may doom its texture, human scale, and occasionally outstanding buildings. Boston discovered the skyscraper and massive development back in the 1950's. It then had the state legislature pass a special law allowing the Prudential Center to be built on air rights over the Boston and Albany railroad yards.

Pressures in Back Bay for further high rise development, both commercial and residential, are enormous. Eventually Boston will probably have a "high spine" of skyscrapers running from Government Center through Back Bay to Massachusetts Avenue. According to the exhibition catalogue, high-rise lowers have also been proposed to envelop the Back Bay on the north and east: they would be erected on each corner along Beacon Street and all along Arlington Street, across from the Public Garden.

Unfortunately, one look at the Prudential Center and another at the exhibition's model of the planned John Hancock Tower suggests that this real estate development in the 70's and 80's will only detract from the city as a work of art.

The trouble isn't so much that these buildings are ugly in themselves: it's more that they ignore all but commercial considerations. Both towers are advertisements. The John Hancock Tower will be the taller and louder of the two. Designed by Henry Cobb of I.M. Pei and Partners, it is a sheer glass rhomboid from the sidewalk to the top of its 60th story.

In carrying the glass-and-steel tradition to this extreme Cobb actually parodies a skyscraper. Everyone at "Back Bay Boston: The City as A Work of Art" giggled when they came to the three-dimensional model of the tower and surrounding area. The Hancock Tower is funny because it's so totally out of scale with its surroundings. It will rise right behind H.H. Richardson's Trinity Church, south of Copley Square. And in the model it actually makes that forceful building with its space-carving Romanesque forms look squat and toad-like.

I GUESS YOU can't expect corporations and real estate developers to spend money for aesthetics. But you can force them to. The developers stepped all over the City of Boston when these monstrosities were approved. Both towers were in violation of existing zoning laws. The sites are so desirable that allowing certain violations should have garnered the city considerable leverage for getting better buildings.

New construction is, of course, good for a city's economy-it brings tax money. lunchtime shoppers and employees who will want to live in the inner city. But it should be possible to get all that and good urban design too. For example, the Prudential Center didn't have to cloister itself on its side of Boylston Street. Set far back from the sidewalk, it destroys the street front which is crucial to Back Bay. The escalators which presumably lead into it are no substitute for store fronts and other visual and physical openings. Also, the whole development is on such a huge scale, with those long blocks of straight concrete that it really has nothing to do with Back Bay or Boston.

And the Hancock building will be more of the same. It could at least visually acknowledge a street level, and make some concession to the scale of Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library. Instead of being so glaringly glass and steel it might honor the warmly colored texture of Back Bay. Finally, there's no reason for it to be a 60-story monolith-land isn't all that scarce in Boston. Of course, excessive height and strikingly in human scale are an asset to a commercial building. They assert that it is the most important, the biggest and the best, even while it draws bigger traffic jams.

The problem of building well, to make the city a work of art, involves more than just putting up prettier buildings. New construction along Boylston Street could amount to a glass and steel barricade, while there is a strong need to tie the South End closer to the Back Bay. And besides looking strange and introducing congestion, surrounding Back Bay with high rise buildings or putting a high spine through Boston could even redirect winds and change temperatures in the area. It all seems worth concern, because the city is, after all, the most public and accessible art form.

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