In the decades following WWII, Boston faced a period of decline: its population was shrinking, few new buildings were being built, and large parts of the city were in decay. According to the Boston Globe, the “Athens of America” of the late 1800s had become a “hopeless backwater." In response, the Boston Redevelopment Authority undertook a decades-long initiative of “urban renewal” that would profoundly reshape the city.
Faced with the remarkable design opportunities and challenges this created, leading architects set aside the minimalist language of the International style and embraced the monumental potential of concrete.
While examples are evident in other cities, the large scale and wide scope of these projects in Boston establishes a distinctive movement here - the Boston Concrete Style. For some, these massive, vertical buildings of pre-cast and poured concrete, with thick walls, deep window and door openings, and minimal ornamentation recall another distinctive local movement of two centuries earlier - the Boston Granite style. For others, these strongly-expressed, sculptural buildings with large-scale, angular forms, blunt, heavily textured details, and exposed structure fall under the category of Brutalism.
A recent book, “Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston,” provides a thoughtful rethinking of this movement. In their introduction, BSA members and architects Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley review the various explanations and apologies for the origins of the term “Brutalist,” and then propose a reframing of the movement under a new term, “Heroic.” An excerpt:
“Today, the rough categorization of this strain of concrete architecture as “Brutalist” has served to disconnect it from the period’s political, social, and material concerns. Originally seen as reflecting democratic attributes of powerful civic expression – authenticity, honesty, directness, strength – Brutalism eventually came to signify hostility, coldness, and inhumanity. Ambitions that had been viewed as positively monumental were condemned as bureaucratic and overbearing. As a banner for a movement, “Brutalism” was a rhetorical catastrophe. Separated from its original context and reduced in meaning, it became an all-too-easy pejorative suggesting these buildings were designed with negative intentions.
“We recover a different word – Heroic – as a more accurate descriptor for the modes of thought that governed many of these works… Like Brutalism, Heroic carries both positive and negative connotations. It underscores the ambition, but also perhaps the hubris, that marks the architectural production of the time… Heroic acknowledges the complexities of these buildings – both the intentions from which they grew and their controversial status afterward.”
This guide offers a survey of Boston’s “concrete architecture” but is not intended to be a complete guide to all works in this category.
Image: © Peter Vanderwarker 2014