Mini Monuments or Strange Little Monsters
Christina Crawford

Despite the associations of grandeur and monumentality with heroic architecture, there exists an alchemistic recipe for diffusing the seriousness of concrete in urban locations like Boston. This recipe relies heavily on over-exuberant textures, over-reaching forms and, in the examples of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association and the Boston Architectural College, strangely diminutive scale. The best-known examples of Boston’s heroic concrete modernism exhibit none of these qualities. They demand respect—or even dislike—through the monolithic, the gargantuan.

Tiny concrete object-buildings are harder to find. After all, they are typically small and are rarely celebrated works; but they offer a glimpse into the true difficulty of building massively, concretely, within Boston’s urban context. Given a modestly dimensioned Boston infill site in the late 1960s and a desire to build in the material of fashion, what else could possibly emerge but a Napoleonic mini-monument?

At the peak of Beacon Hill, 20 Ashburton Place houses the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association. Completed in 1968—the same year as Boston City Hall—it uses a highly faceted pre-cast window-surround panel as the primary building unit. The panels here accomplish what articulated concrete panels do so well: they create a monumentally scaled texture that in turn defines the overall character of the building. Despite its pretension, the building sits on a parcel no wider than three slim townhouses. Given its tiny size, the entire massing of the building is defined by the crenellated panels strung together along the short facades, which conjure visions of geodes, sea urchins, inhaling accordions. The obvious strangeness and inadvertent humor of the building come from the complete misalignment of material ambition and site scale.

The 1966 main building of the Boston Architectural College (BAC), a small concrete, brick infill, and glass box on the corner of Hereford and Newbury Streets, faces similar site-limiting challenges. The bankable character of Newbury Street relies on a staccato cadence of narrow bow-front buildings. While the BAC enjoys a prime corner location, again the site is no wider than three typical Back Bay parcels. This building exerts itself not through texture, but through overhangs and appendages. On Newbury Street, the building hovers on a cantilever over the sidewalk; facing Hereford Street, it engages the sidewalk with spindly concrete legs that create a gloomy concrete portico. Since there is no long perspective from which the building can be perceived as an object, it forces its monumentality on the pedestrian through sheer bullying proximity.

The source of all of this scalar over-reaching may come not from City Hall—an exact contemporary of these buildings—but from across the river at Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center (1959-63). Designed at the end of Le Corbusier’s career and representing his only building in North America, the Carpenter Center bears the weight of extraordinary aspiration, yet remains shoehorned into a narrow mid-block site. Le Corbusier revealed his own displeasure on first inspection, as he sniffed: “such a small commission from such a large country.” (1) Scale of site aside, he proceeded to design a massively complex, overly monumental concrete building that exhibits a multitude of climate-inappropriate details he had developed over the course of his career: brises-soleil, ondulatoires, aérateurs.
For all its material weight and ambition, the Carpenter Center remains an affable building. This approachability could be attributed to the building’s easily navigable size. But perhaps more crucial is its blithe over-extension—materially and architecturally—regardless of its size and site. This spirit of throwing material and scalar caution to the wind in the service of a monumental vision makes these little heavyweights a guilty, giddy pleasure.

Christina Crawford is a practicing architect and urban designer at Utile, Inc., in downtown Boston. She teaches architectural history and theory at Northeastern University School of Architecture, and serves on the Board of the New England Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.

(1) William J.R. Curtis. Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms. New York: Rizzoli, 1986, 217.