For a native Bostonian, concrete appears largely as a background material. It is seemingly everywhere, providing a steady drumbeat for the governmental, medical, and educational complexes that make up much of the city’s fabric; yet it is seemingly everywhere unremarkable, or at least unremarked upon. Examples of repetitive, articulated concrete architecture are frequent enough to become indistinguishable in the image of the city; individual buildings and even districts marked primarily by concrete run together in the imagination, as with the city’s various medical districts (who can tell them apart: Mass General, Boston City, B.U. Medical Center, Tufts-Deaconess, Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s, Beth Israel, Dana Farber...).
Though often intensely designed in themselves, many of the city’s concrete buildings act as more or less glorified background elements in shaping the urban fabric. The most articulated examples of concrete architecture in Boston are precisely those whose scale and repetition achieve an order of urban effects closer to infrastructure than to building. Even Boston City Hall, the literal centerpiece and figural icon of Boston’s concrete era, serves more to enclose and provide a backdrop for the plaza of Government Center than to sit within it. The clearest expression of urbane background building may be I. M. Pei and Araldo Cossutta’s Christian Science Center (completed by the adjacent Church Park Apartments by The Architects Collaborative), whose horizontal and vertical elements of colonnade and tower hover somewhere between repetitive foreground and prominent background in defining a monumental urban setting.
It is only when looking at the city through the lens of the architect that one realizes to what degree this project—to invent an urbane (often monumental) infrastructure of background buildings in concrete—was intentional, even ideological, within a period of production from the 1950s to the 1970s. Viewed in terms of the buildings’ urban performance, their architects saw themselves as participating in a communal project intended to remake Boston as a modern city, through a revitalization of its major economic infrastructures: government, education, medicine, and technology. Concrete construction acted as a visible symbol of commitment to this total urban project. The material choice and its elaboration provided a shared language that could relate individual buildings both to each other and to the city. It is no surprise, then, that so few offices were responsible for so much of Boston’s new architecture in this period—and that most of it was in concrete. This select list includes The Architect’s Collaborative (TAC) above all, but also the firms of I.M. Pei, Josep Lluis Sert, Ben Thompson, F. A. Stahl, Hugh Stubbins, and a relatively small handful of others.
The time period covered in “Heroic” marks the rise and fall of this “ideological” era of concrete Boston architecture. It spans from the founding of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 1957—an open announcement of the city’s support for an infrastructural and urban renewal project that would remake vast portions of the city—to the Bicentennial and the reopening of Quincy Market in 1976, with its nostalgic design signaling the turn to a historicizing conception of the city that would effectively end the concrete era. (The end point of Quincy Market speaks to the volatile, shifting tastes of this time, as it was designed by Ben Thompson, himself an ambassador of the heroic period—first as a founding principal of TAC and later through iconic concrete works like his Design Research building.) A survey of the heroic architecture of this period reveals that modern Boston was and is truly a concrete city. Its concrete buildings are equal (and often superior) to the traditional examples of brick and stone through which the image of the city has long been simplistically, and incompletely, portrayed.
Michael Kubo is a writer and editor pursuing a PhD in History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the co-author of The Function of Ornament; other recent editorial projects include Kazys Varnelis’s The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles and Sanford Kwinter’s Far From Equilibrium.