Toward a Respectful Modernism

About a week ago I was fortunate enough to have a map of Rome’s transit system that I created be presented from Boston’s Mayor Walsh to Rome’s Mayor Marino.  Later that day Mayor Marino gave a lecture on Rome’s transportation concerns at the Boston Society of Architects where I met him and spoke with some of his aides, all of whom expressed that their main focus in Rome is on modernizing both the city’s built form and image.  This, of course, is no small task in one of the world’s great ancient cities where nearly all of the desirable land is built upon, and most of it is home to structures and spaces that carry a landmark status for a variety of reasons.

Mayor Walsh presenting Mayor Marino with the map I designed as a gift from Boston to Rome.

It’s an interesting problem to contemplate in the context of Rome, Boston, or really any city with an architectural legacy older than three generations or so – say 90 years (I would worry about modern contextuality in Tel Aviv, but not in most of Dubai).  Keeping in mind the role that design plays in how people perceive a city’s image, how can we design buildings and spaces that successfully feel modern and forward-looking, while at the same time are respectful of the landmark status of their surroundings without bordering on mimicry? There are a variety of noteworthy approaches, Postmodernism itself likely having been the most sweeping; indeed, it was a trend whose grasp Boston is still struggling to escape.

With its massive Palladian window form, columns, tiling, arcades, and ornaments, Philip Johnson's 500 Boylston is a good example of the post-modernism legacy left in Boston. 

While talking to Mayor Marino’s aides, I said, “What if we did a beautiful modern information pavilion in the piazza between the Coliseum and the entrance to the Forum?”  The combined gasp of shock and expression of exhausted defeatism that I received in response said it all: “Been there, tried that”, “I wish”, and “Insantity! But just maybe…” Such was the reaction from a forward thinking, 20-something year old tasked directly from the Mayor with modernizing Rome’s own image of itself – I could only imagine what the general populace would think. 

 In Rome two main methods have or are currently being tested to combat the fact that “brilliant modern architecture” is not the first or even third thing that comes to mind when discussing the city. The first is along the lines of Paris’s La Defense model whereby modern structures are built far away from the city center (called Centro Historico in Rome’s case) and are clustered together in a campus to avoid interaction or disruption of the Ancient, Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance structures in the more densely populated and visited parts of the city.  This has come in two forms: the construction of the EUR campus far to the south of the Campo Marzo (the part of the city that most people think of as downtown Rome), which Mussolini built in a high fascist modernist style to host the 1942 World’s Fair, and the much more recent construction of a modern arts district to the north of the Campo in the Flaminio neighborhood where Santiago Calatrava designed a bridge, Zaha Hadid did the MAXXI, Renzo Piano designed the Parco della Musica, and a variety of ‘60’s sports structures remain from the Olympics.

The EUR Campus south of Rome.  At the center-bottom is the Palazzo della Civilità Italiana, the complex's architectural centerpiece.

The approach being undertaken more recently has erred on the side of integration rather than the distant separation and observation achieved by far-flung campuses full of contemporary buildings.  In the Testaccio and Ostiense neighborhoods, a short subway ride to the south of the Campo and within walking distance of many famous monuments, the city government is attempting to bring vitality to abandoned military and industrial facilities now surrounded by 19th- and early 20th-century apartment buildings.  In Testaccio, the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma (MACRO) was opened in 2003 as a renovation of a massive slaughterhouse within walking distance of such monuments as the Pyramid of Cestius and the Circus Maximus.  Two subway stops to the south, the city is building its new offices not far from the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, thereby freeing up the space they currently occupy in Michelangelo’s Campidoglio to be used as a museum and simultaneously bringing new life to Ostiense. 

A four-story bamboo tower was constructed as part of an exhibit at the MACRO last year in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood. 

A similar approach has been undertaken in Boston by the city government, which has put a massive investment into the Dudley Square neighborhood in Roxbury through the renovation and expansion of the Ferdinand Department Store into the Dudley Square Municipal Building which will be home to the headquarters of the offices of the Boston Public Schools.  The project hopes to enliven the area by providing new retail opportunities, office space, and a significantly larger working population. 

A rendering of what the Ferdinand Building will look like once its transformation into the Dudley Square Municipal Building is complete. 

Impressive as the endeavors here discussed by both Boston and Rome have been, they are primarily urban tactics to the integration of modern buildings and focus on the introduction of these buildings as a means to improving economic vitality in struggling areas.  But what about architecturally?  What is required of architectural design to allow the respectful introduction of a new building into a city’s already-vibrant, historical center?  In Boston, the approach has become tired and sad; new buildings are clad in a patchwork of stone, glass, and brick as an attempt to both fit in and win the approval they need just to get built.  The city’s largest firms reuse and tweak their tried-and-true designs and concepts because the review commissions have become accustomed to them and complacent to pass buildings through approval with as little community opposition as possible thereby squashing any possibility for newer, more innovative designers with significantly fresher and better designs to offer proposals.  What proposals they do offer inevitably end up shirked off into the “thoughtleader” (read: “nice idea”) category. 

Architectural homogeneity in the form of hermetically-sealed stone and glass boxes runs rampant in Boston's Innovation and Seaport Districts.

A few firms have championed what I call the “scoop-and-plop” method, whereby the facades of buildings originally on the site are left intact and a new tower is introduced behind them so that, at least at the street-level, there is no tremendous change and the urban fabric is largely preserved.  More thoughtfully, Henry Cobb’s 1976 Hancock Place tower in Copley Square is both very respectful and very modern and has achieved a landmark status of its own.  By using highly reflective glass and coyly angling itself away from Copley Square and its many great architectural landmarks, the tower actually enhances them and the square through an added sense of placehood, intentionality, and a visually pleasing, well-proportioned contrast.

The Hancock Tower does its best to take a respectful backseat role to the architectural icons in Copley Square. 

But a project as masterful in its ability to tread all the right lines is rare, even nearly 38 years after the Hancock’s completion.  Boston, like Rome, must rethink its priorities; do we want to be a city that prizes blending in over moving forward?  Do we want to be the pretty city, the brilliant city, or the beauty-and-brains city?  Smart design is beautiful design and as designers we are challenged and tasked to bring together these goals harmoniously.  Cities too afraid to bring fresh, new ideas into their centers through architecture will find themselves going the way of Paris: a giant urban museum and playground of consumption for the super-rich.