I had occasion to bring up Boston's City Hall the other day, and say that I didn't think it was as bad as people say. Certainly not the ugliest building in the world. Whoever can say that simply hasn't traveled very much.
But, a few months ago, there was a flurry of articles here in Boston about rehabilitating the Brutalist concrete architecture of the period from roughly the late 50s to the early 70s, starting with City Hall, but including the truly appalling Government (or State) Service Center, which I ride past every day on my way to work.
The argument seems to be, "much fine architecture of the past fell out of fashion, was denigrated, and then torn down. We now miss these buildings. These Brutalist works are denigrated, and people want to tear them down. If we do, someday we will miss them."
Despite the logical fallacy, it could still be true. But since they seem to me somewhat Pyongyang-like, I don't think it's true. There really are poor works of architecture, that start unattractive and stay unattractive. Sometimes they gain some affection just by hanging around for a long time and getting associated with some supposedly better past era. But the 70s--energy crisis, bellbottoms, sideburns, Jimmy Carter, Iranian hostage crisis, Son of Sam--can be a tough sell, particularly as it was the tail end of the architectural heart of darkness the country entered after the end of WWII. Great popular music, though, better than anything since. And blockbuster summer movies. So it had some great art forms.
Not architecture, though. Every era has art forms that exemplify its genius, and others that...don't.
The Globe architecture critic, Robert Campbell does not agree. He says
I’m against tearing things down just because we happen not to like their looks. What you do with ugly buildings is live with them, add to them, give them a new face or a new use, and treat them with disrespect — not with murder
(I think he means "respect", but maybe not)
What would city life be like if you could never tear a building down? "Murder"? Sounds like architecture critics should spend a little more time talking with real estate developers, businesspeople, and citizens, and less time with...architects. To keep things living you tear down even pretty good buildings--something that can be a real problem in "historic" areas, where age equals virtue. The fact that a mistake was made with a lot of concrete doesn't require you to keep it.
Architecture is hard. In fact, I think it is too hard for an individual depending solely on genius. In the past, no one depended solely on genius. They came out of a tradition with a series of rules and established patterns, had peers who could tell good work from bad, and worked with masters of various building trades who were trained in the same tradition. One advantage of a tradition is that it is both more complex and more flexible than an invented style. With a good architectural tradition, even a non-genius can create good work. Without it, even a genius can succeed only occasionally, and almost by accident.
As I said above, I don't hate Boston City Hall. I think the problem with City Hall (at least in its external aspect--I'm not a resident of the city and have never had to transact bureaucratic business there) is mostly its setting. The vast Soviet-style plaza in front of it, the tedious Center Plaza with its relentless windows, and the other bureaucratic storage containers around it create a zone of architectural tedium that it seems to fit into. But it has some level of complexity to its facade. If I were redoing Boston, I'd keep it to represent the period, while eliminating its fellows. Then I'd build up around it so that you get glimpses of it down streets before seeing it whole, and maybe grown vines on it. It actually looks designed to survive the collapse of civilization and to spend the better part of its existence in ruins, like the Colosseum.
Get rid of the rest of them, though. They tend to be huge superblocks, so each one could open up space for a half dozen decent structures. Do we dare?