Mark Pasnik | Chris Grimley | Michael Kubo

“Heroic” presents the concrete structures that highlighted the era from the founding of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 1957 to the re-opening of Quincy Market in 1976. These events bracket a remarkable period in which concrete was used as a building material in the transformation of Boston—creating what was eventually referred to as the “New Boston.” Concrete provided an important set of architectural opportunities and challenges for the design community, which fully explored the material’s structural and sculptural qualities. At this time, Boston was shaped by some of the world’s most influential architects: Breuer (be honest, did you know he had a major building here in the Madison Park High School?), Catalano, Cossutta , Gropius, Kallmann and McKinnell, Le Corbusier, Pei, Rudolph, Sert, Stahl, Stubbins, and Yamasaki, among many other luminaries.

Boston was at the forefront of architectural thinking, embracing this new material in a mission to expand and transform the city. There was a great deal of enthusiasm for this work within the architecture community (for instance, nearly every year during this period the Boston Society of Architects awarded the Harleston Parker Medal to a concrete building). Whole new districts and vast infrastructural improvements appeared, serving the needs of government, hospitals, universities, housing, and, to a lesser extent, the financial sector. Some of these developments were important to modernizing the city. Others fractured communities in the name of misguided urban renewal.

Today we see a widespread disdain for concrete buildings. Many are in danger of being demolished or irrevocably and unwisely altered. Some already have been, as is the case with portions of Children’s Hospital (The Architects Collaborative), the Saltonstall Building (Emery Roth & Sons), and the Eastern Airlines Terminal (Minoru Yamasaki). Others are constantly being bandied about for demolition or equally destructive fates (think Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles’ Boston City Hall or Paul Rudolph’s Health and Human Services Building).

What were once heralded as heroic visions in remaking a city have now become perceived as hubristic and brutal. But Boston has never been just a city of brick. It is a city that early on had an equally important stone heritage. With the vast amount and high quality of concrete architecture produced during the heroic era of modernity, Boston has become as significantly a concrete city as it is one of stone and brick.

The essays and images in this exhibition invite us to understand that fact—and to value a city enriched by a layered and complex evolution.

In order to better examine the heroic era in Boston, we have enlisted a number of people to address some of the central themes evoked by these buildings. An essay by Tad Stahl (architect of the State Street Bank) and an interview with Michael McKinnell (architect of Boston City Hall) illustrate the architectural idealism of their generation and their search for authenticity through concrete form. Historian Douglass Shand-Tucci analyzes the evolving modernist sensibility, particularly related to the “noble” material of concrete, that drives the work of I. M. Pei. Critic Michael Kubo reframes concrete architecture as an urban infrastructure that shapes entire city districts. Architect Eric Höweler’s essay describes the allure and conceptual dangers of recladding concrete buildings, firing a warning shot about flimsy facelifts that sadly mask concrete’s authenticity. Architectural materials specialist Kiel Moe presents surprising arguments that these massive concrete buildings may, in fact, be models for future sustainable development. Structural engineer Paul E. Kassabian describes the dizzying difficulties and richness of concrete structures. Architect Christina Crawford hunts for the strangest of these concrete works—the smallest monumental structures—finding them to be giddy pleasures. And designer Rami el Samahy describes the Caesarian drama of heroic concrete architecture’s demise. Where possible, we have found quotes from various critics about the buildings themselves that help enrich the understanding of it as an image.

Read on. These texts frame a series of provocative questions surrounding the heroic era and its powerful and controversial concrete architecture. The sum of all of this research does not attempt to form a singular product or a unified position. We see the “Heroic” exhibition as a launch to an open process, one that has two aims. The first is a finite effort to publish a book centered around the architecture and architects of this period. We want you to weigh in. Are we missing something? What have we overlooked?

The exhibition offers just a small cross-section of the works we are documenting. It does not yet include the important satellite projects surrounding Boston—buildings like Louis Kahn’s
Exeter Library, Paul Rudolph’s University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus, or the many structures at Brandeis University. We have not included the hybrid heroics—buildings like Larson Hall at Harvard (brick but as bold as any of these), those that look and act like they are concrete, but are actually stone over concrete frames (Shepley’s Leverett House or Stubbins’ Countway Medical Library at Longwood), or those that express concrete frames but fill them with brick (much of Hugh Stubbins’ residential work follows this type). There is also the matter of placing this work in the broader arc of local history, particularly what comes prior, such as Aalto and Saarinen. We have tried to foreshadow concrete architecture’s immanent changes towards end of this period with an example like the Blackstone Elementary School (Stull Associates), which uses concrete block with a brick color. Yet these are only the beginnings to a deeper understanding of the vectors and forces that shaped this period in Boston.

The second aim of this launch is a longer and more difficult initiative, one that requires an energetic investment from all of us. Simply put, we hope to return these buildings to their proper position in the discourse about architecture, both in the profession and within a broader political and public realm. Is it possible to help reshape public perception and remind people of the profound value of these buildings? We hope so. The format of the exhibit, with sheets visitors could take away, was intentional. You can now get out there in the city as investigators and advocates for understanding these buildings and seeing their value.