I.M. Pei’s Noble Boston
(Extracts, full version at www.backbayhistorical.org)
Douglass Shand-Tucci

Boston has been modern many times. In any survey of of the history of architecture from ancient Greece onwards—that of the British scholar David Watkin, for example—the spotlight swivels to Boston a half dozen times to demand illustration: first, in the early 1700s, to Peter Harrison’s King’s Chapel, then to Charles Bulfinch’s New State House in the late 1700s, thereafter to those two Copley Square icons of Richardson’s Trinity and McKim’s Public Library, and finally to Alvar Aalto’s 20th-century Baker House in Cambridgeport....

Does this mean Boston has been modern, so to speak, only three times? Modern is a fraught word of many meanings. New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger puts it this way: in America “the models for everything are in Boston.”

[In the twentieth century] Boston was modern in a very different way. [In] the 1960s, as another Times architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, remarked, it was a case of everyone everywhere hearing what Huxtable calls Boston’s “architectural shot heard round the world.” She continues: “Bostonians espoused modernism early and with characteristic intellectual conviction. Boston played a leading role in the practice and dissemination of a movement that changed the face of the twentieth century.”

The Boston Huxtable writes about is the Boston of the Brahmin intellectual elite.... [A] great Brahmin patron presented Walter Gropius with the land in suburban Boston on which he famously built his house in the late 1930s, the first volley of Huxtable’s firepower, which she carefully detailed, from “the familiar icons of the first generation.... the tradition-shattering houses of the 1930s by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto’s 1947 Baker house dormitory at MIT, Eero Saarinen’s 1955 MIT Chapel [and] Le Corbusier’s 1960-1963 Carpenter Center at Harvard” to the “second generation of the 1960s work that includes Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles’s competition-winning Boston City Hall, Phillips Johnson’s and John Burgee’s Boston Public Library.... and the design of I. M. Pei’s and Henry Cobb’s John Hancock Building.” Finally, she concludes: the academic elite trumped the social elite—“Boston’s great educational institutions, Harvard and MIT, were the real crucible in which American modern architecture was formed.”

As historian William J. R. Curtis has pointed out.... it was to Boston chiefly after the Second World War that a new generation of young Americans flocked to sit at the feet of Gropius. Among the half dozen or so Curtis mentions was young Pei.

A certain native genius in Bostonian climes was not entirely wanting at the dawn of Modernism in America. In 1954, the Boston-based firm of Richardson’s successor architects, Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott, designed the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge in the Back Bay, a swirl of curvilinear reinforced-concrete magnificently flung across Storrow Drive at Beacon and Arlington Streets with a verve more than equal to Saarinen’s MIT Chapel of the following year.

However, as Harvard’s John Coolidge, my old teacher and mentor, a legendary modernist of the most critical, hard-headed sort, pointed out, it was a distinctive trait of Boston—wanting always the best of everything—to “import [architects] or their designs,” from Peter Harrison and Charles Bulfinch to Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier, and the result was, Coolidge wrote in 1977, that “in one day” one could see by that year in and around Boston’s core city a collection of Modernist architecture by great masters hard to rival anywhere else in the world.” To which it is perhaps only necessary to add Margaret Henderson Floyd’s observation that “Pei’s influence [would be] as great in twentieth-century Boston as that of Bulfinch in earlier times.”

Boston has not only been modern many times, but in many different ways.

It is often said that Bulfinch at the end of the eighteenth century and the first years of the nineteenth transformed Boston into a city of stone and brick. Pei in the twentieth century found it still so, but transformed it into a city, yes, of glass and steel, but overwhelmingly of architectural concrete, which suited the high Modernist way with architecture in the 1960s, which was heroic, romantic and ennobling. Oddly perhaps, I know this, or at least I think I do, because of Harvard Stadium, which I first encountered as a boy on weekend automobile trips.... It was surely my first consideration of architecture, all unknowing, that being a very big word for a child of seven or eight.

For me, as I recall gazing out the car window, the stadium seemed to ride the greensward of Soldiers Field with all the grandeur that was Rome, like a great leviathan.... Bold, massive, arch after graceful arch marching along in exposed concrete splendor to some victory or another I could feel in my bones, Harvard Stadium has, unlike many boyhood memories, gotten even better in adulthood. Now I know that this landmark which won my heart so early in life is, historically, hardly less remarkable for its time and place—it was erected in 1903—than was the Roman Colosseum in its day, for Harvard Stadium is the first, as when it was built it was the largest, of all the massive reinforced concrete structures of the world....

What all this reflects is that I have been for a year or two much influenced by a point of view, implied in the work of Curtis, a scholar I greatly respect, that has lately been put very forcefully to me by a friend, Tad Stahl (that’s Frederick A. Stahl...) that while glass, like brick, is not to be disdained—my favorite of Stahl’s buildings, his addition to the Park Street Church in Boston, is brick—only stone and steel and concrete are what Stahl calls “noble” architectural materials; concrete perhaps noblest of all. “Reinforced concrete is innately an architectural medium, a complete building system. Steel is innately a structural medium, almost invariably requiring its own enclosure to function in conjunction with architecture,” declared Stahl at a recent MIT symposium on the subject of concrete architecture. Of his own work in Boston in and around the 1960s—his best known building is the thirty-four-story original State Street Bank tower at 225 Franklin Street—Stahl adds: “Many of my generation of Boston architects were eager to express the possibilities of concrete.... I. M. Pei had undertaken a mission to prove that cast-in-place concrete could be a truly noble material, equal or superior to the best natural stone.” It is a point of view I felt I should take a long look at, all the more so because the very low bells it rang within me. Harvard Stadium again.

Pei designed the first skyscraper at MIT, by then long since moved for expansion purposes to the Back Bay’s adjoining neighborhood of Cambridgeport across the river, to be on axis with with the Prudential. As Pei earned his MIT architectural degree in Copley Square, and is known to relate to that locale more intimately than to Cambridgeport, I guessed at once that he positioned his skyscraper, the Green Center for Earth Sciences, very purposefully. And the reason today, fresh perhaps from lunch with Tad, I might find Pei’s MIT tower a more rewarding study than Pei’s later Hancock Tower is that the Green Center for Earth Sciences is, indeed, undisguised concrete.

Perhaps because “concrete,” as Curtis says, “of all materials, is one of the most flexible, one of the least determining of form,” relying on “the shape of the mould and the shaping intelligence of the designer”... Pei and some of his earliest collaborators were early drawn to it. Pei, in fact, was a concrete designer at Boston’s Stone and Webster for a short while, and at his Kips Bay project in New York City, the first exposed concrete apartment houses there, Pei did pioneering work in cast-in-place concrete that must have weighed heavily in MIT’s decision to follow his lead in the Green Building, in which project according to Philip Jodidio there were “reservations over the still experimental use of concrete in a tall building.” These were all the stronger because the MIT tower was Pei’s first big job on his own and in his own name. He told Gigi Marino of The Tech Review once that before MIT he had been little better than “a hired hand.” I became an independent practitioner at MIT.” And to very good point. “Submerged under the economics of real estate development, Pei’s work,” Richard Guy Wilson has written, “had lacked artistry and nobility, but once freed from these restraints, the shift in attitude was notable. He rediscovered architecture as an art.”

Yet the MIT tower was not in many ways an auspicious start. Quoth the Harvard Crimson: “When the Green Building was first opened the doors at the base of the building were difficult to open because of the strong winds coming from Boston Harbor. Pei was quite embarrassed.” Noted Jodidio, “the entrance porticos were ultimately redesigned and the wind tunnel visibly transformed into an open frame for ‘Great Sail,’” a superb forty-foot high stabile commissioned from Alexander Calder. It was for his building alone, however, his first ‘one man show,’ that Pei’s firm won the Harleston Parker Gold Medal for the most beautiful building in Boston erected that year. It was the first such Pei would win, of which the most delicious must have been for the Hancock Tower, at first so vigorously opposed.

The MIT tower turned many heads, and still does—exposed concrete as beautiful remains a controversial view even today in some circles. Yet this gorgeous sculptural monolith stands there still, one of the first heralds of the architectural aesthetic of the 1960s.

Douglass Shand-Tucci is a historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His best known book is Built in Boston, City and Suburb (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999). The online column from which these extracts were drawn—begun on WGBH on Christopher Lydon’s Ten O’Clock News, moved in the 1990s to the Boston Phoenix—appears now on Back Bay Historical’s website: www.backbayhistorical.org. “I. M. Pei’s Noble Boston,” the September 2009 column, was published to coincide with “Heroic.”