Looking Back to Look Forward
Kiel Moe

The concrete buildings in Heroic Boston illustrate a contemporary analogue to an important, yet under-considered approach to sustainable cities: a paradigm of high-performance, low-technology buildings best exemplified by an ancient city like Rome. Rome has some of the most sustainable buildings in the world. This is not the result of a couple of decades of LEED-certified strategies, but rather a pervasive and persistent practice of durability and re-use over many centuries. The advantages of this approach are apparent once you consider the amortization of the ecological and economic resources embedded in Rome’s stock of low-embodied energy and low-operational buildings, energy use that is divided over the generations it has served through several centuries This long-term amortization strikes a sharp contrast with the hubris of contemporary, high-tech, high-embodied energy buildings that serve limited populations for thirty to, perhaps, a hundred years. When this amortization is coupled with the cultural and social dividends of those same resources over the long life of a great city, then the foundations of multiple forms of sustainability are evident.

The often massive, telluric disposition of heroic buildings helps remind us that most all architecture is but adorned infrastructure for the qualities of life in our cities. The highly durable form of construction featured in this exhibition—concrete—will be essential infrastructure to the future of sustainable cities in two important ways. First, the substantial thermal mass of buildings like Boston City Hall, Peabody Terrace, and the Christian Science Center points toward a contemporary low-technology, high-performance paradigm. Such thermal mass is a fundamental component to a long overdue transformation of energy systems in buildings that will decouple heating from ventilation—a shift to radiant heating and cooling. This new approach will involve hydronically activating the mass of the structure and the building itself. While using radically less energy, buildings will perform the way our bodies do, thus increasing our comfort.

Such an approach also eliminates the unnecessarily complex, highly additive assemblages of thin plastic layers and flimsy dropped ceilings common in today’s construction techniques—replacing them with a robust building stock not unlike the historic, thick-walled fabric of Boston. The prospect of carbon neutral, net positive buildings will increasingly be based on the integration of thermally active surfaces embedded in concrete structures. This transformation presents an enormous opportunity for new and renovated concrete buildings in Boston in the coming decades.

Second, in the best of cases such as Ben Thompson’s Design Research Center and Paul Rudolph’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield offices, the concrete buildings in Heroic Boston are specifically generic—not in appearance but in the performativity of their planning and building infrastructure. They are open to next-uses. Contrary to dogmatic form-to-function relationships that strain against sustainability and yet persist so often unexamined in contemporary architecture, these buildings engender multiple, unanticipated uses because they have robust structures, energy systems, and building envelopes that can endure the demands of adaptation. Like their great New England wharf and mill antecedents, many concrete buildings have the necessary capability to persist and evolve with cultural, ecological, and market forces.

When these fundamental characteristics of a thermodynamically, ecologically, and economically sane mode of building production construction are considered as principal values that do not dismiss, but transcend the mere appearance of a building, we can imagine a new paradigm of twenty-first century architecture in Boston largely based on concrete. As such, the buildings in Heroic Boston help us look back in order to look forward.

Kiel Moe is an architect and assistant professor of design and building technologies at Northeastern University. He will be a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome during 2009-10. He is the author of two books, Integrated Design in Contemporary Architecture (2008) and Thermally Active Surfaces in Architecture (2010), published by Princeton Architectural Press.