Tag Archive for 'development'

The Hotel Commonwealth

Kenmore Square, Boston, has always had a reputation for being a little bit seedy—much the way Times Square used to be. It boasts a major Subway interchange, the best Ballpark in the American League, if not all of baseball, and it used to be home to a diverse group of small businesses and restaurants.

When I first moved to Kenmore Square, in 1996, there was a Methadone clinic, a punk-rock venue called the Rathskeller, a late-night restaurant called Deli-haus, a gritty coffee house called Fuel, and a bunch of other businesses housed in the cluster of Browstones on the opposite side of the Square. In 2003, chalk these landmarks into a new chapter of Lost Boston.

When Boston University proposed bulldozing much of the south side of the square, and replacing the century-old brownstones with a “European-style” hotel, city and community leaders largely supported the idea… largely, I suspect, because BU was willing to pay generously to relocate affected businesses with neighborhood association ties, such as Cornwall’s Pub. Also, the university is giving millions to upgrade the Subway station and traffic configuration in the Square.

Whether or not you identify with my bemoaning the loss of a funky piece of an otherwise boring city, what is not in question is the public reaction when the workers finally unveiled the facade. For a hotel looking to project Continental luxury and flair, it looks like a reproduction on the back lot at Universal Studios, or, perhaps, Main Street USA, Disneyland. Tacky, cheap, and an insult to a city with truly exceptional architecture.

I am not, I think, and elitist when it comes to architecture… I think classicist ideals of style and materials are preferable to 90% of all avant-garde rubbish of the past 50 years. But, BU and the developers cheated by trying to copy the style of the French Second Empire, while using materials common on a Wal-Mart job site. Instead of limestone, let’s use fiberglass. Brick too expensive? Substitute fiberglass for the real thing. And, the dormers can just be cut-outs—I mean, who looks that closely, right?

The fact is, this hotel would look pretty good from your car on the Interstate at 75 MPH, if it were located out in the sprawl belt of I-495 and 128. It’s cartoon color and features would blur from the highway strip. But, this hotel is in the heart of the city, with thousands of pedestrians walking by each day. And it looks Mickey Mouse, compared with the surrounding buildings.

The photos I took, unfortunately, fail to show how bad the facade really is. Trust me, it looks as if they were trying to save a few bucks… which is precisely not the image you’re going for in a 4-star hotel that wants to charge hundreds of dollars a night. Apparently, BU and the developers are going to spend $2 million to “fix” the facade. Good luck.

Public = Avant Garde ??

The ProposalsI read a little piece in the Times today concerning the two finalists chosen by the LMDC for the World Trade Center, and I have a few reactions.

Let us read some of what Mr. Muschamp writes:

“[Daniel Libeskind’s design] is an emotionally manipulative exercise in visual codes.

Alright. Does any ordinary user of the World Trade Center — worker, tourist, subway rider, etc. — have any idea just what Mr. Muschamp is talking about? Why has architecture become this jargony realm of intellectual nonsense?

I don’t know. The death and destruction of WWI caused a huge shift in Western values, specifically because science and technology was employed so successfully in the killing of a generation of men. In the decades after the war, the long-held idealized notion that technology would usher in peace and prosperity was dashed, and many of the prevailing assumptions in the arts were also vacated. It was in this void that the Modernists arrived– along with their avant garde aesthetics and their intent to social engineer.

So what has Modernism accomplished? Well, not much good. We’ve still got the rich and poor, yet we have ugly civic space. For instance, the original WTC was a wind-swept, anarchistic structure, cut off, and horribly out of scale from the surrounding streets and neighborhood. When you stood in the Plaza looking up at the structures, it was difficult to feel anything but dread. In fact, that seems to be a prevailing requirement of the Modernists– your building must impart DREAD. Unless, of course, you are one of the initiated. You have to be educated for seven years at MIT to understand the beauty of the Brutalist form.

Anyway, back to Mr. Muschamp:

And… the longer I study Mr. Libeskind’s design, the more it comes to resemble the blandest of all the projects unveiled in the recent design study: the retro vision put forth by the New Urbanist designers Peterson Littenberg. Both projects trade on sentimental appeal at the expense of historical awareness. Both offer visions of innocence ? nostalgia, actually.

Peterson Littenberg is nostalgic for Art Deco Manhattan circa 1928, before the stock market crash caused the United States to abandon the prevailing ideology of social Darwinism. Mr. Libeskind’s plan is nostalgic for the world of pre-Enlightenment Europe, before religion was exiled from the public realm.

This is always the argument of these elite intellectuals against classicism — that somehow, ornament, scale, proportionality and humanity are to be despised as Imperial. Now, obviously both plans are far from Classicism, but, in the interest of democracy, why cry historicism when the alternative is intellectualized ugliness?

The general public, I believe, longs for dignity in public architecture. I prefer the Think project, but the lattice work looks like Tinkertoy, and I find it tacky that they have pods within the latticework. How intimidating would it be to get in an elevator, and shoot up 100 floors to a “cultural space”, knowing full well that there is nothing but air and Tinkertoy beneath you? Frightening. The Eiffel Tower it is not.

No doubt whatever gets built at the WTC site will be very modern, and cutting-edge. It is my hope that it exemplifies the dignity and purpose human beings deserve and crave. Let the people choose, not the intellectuals.