Modernism in Search of Authenticity
Tad Stahl

In 1957, I had just returned to Boston from a year and a half of work, study, and architectural collegiality in London. I had been thoroughly indoctrinated in the LeCorbusier canon and was convinced that concrete construction would be the medium of the architecture that I would value, having made pilgrimages to his Paris works, Ronchamp, and the Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles. Reinforced concrete attracted me in part because it is an innately architectural medium, one that is a complete building system unto itself. I had become convinced that architecture should necessitate and compellingly demonstrate an internal logical consistency based on universal principles.

Many of my generation of Boston architects were eager to express the possibilities of concrete construction. A cadre of general contractors and sub-contractors shared these views and had developed the relevant specialized skills. Josep Luis Sert had created both an integrated urban concept and a domesticated language in concrete with the Holyoke Center. 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.

At the time of my return, Boston suffered from a depression-era mindset with a pervasive lack of confidence, especially in real estate. I believed strongly that great urban centers do not die, and recognized an enormous opportunity in Boston. In 1959, several colleagues and I formed a team to create the project eventually known as the State Street Bank Building at 225 Franklin Street. Working with a London property company, we acquired the site for $20 per square foot. By 1960, the team included Bill LeMessurier, my principal collaborator, and the Gilbane Building Company of Providence.

We sought to create structural efficiency and simplicity. The original design included cast-in-place frame and flat-plate floor systems with post-tensioned beams, and only twenty-eight columns. These planning efforts achieved an increase of three percent efficiency over the norm, essentially the equivalent of one additional floor at no additional cost. Despite our client’s enthusiastic approval, the State Street Bank refused to become the prime tenant in a high-rise concrete building. Based on the advice of its New York real estate consultants, they demanded a steel frame building.

The new thirty-four-story scheme employed an efficient and logical steel structure. Refinements included cambered beams, elevated cantilevers, and the first comprehensive computer analysis of a high-rise steel structure conducted at MIT under Bill LeMessurier’s direction. The guiding architectural concept was one of interpenetrating independent cantilevered volumes, with re-entrant corners to provide multiple exposures for offices. The exterior was developed using pre-cast concrete units to form a series of interlocking frames.

I wanted something of the substantive spirit of Boston’s traditional waterfront granite warehouses in the façade detail, while expressing the reality of the cantilevered structure. The façade balances an appropriate and weighty density of concrete with geometrical precision, clarity, and a hierarchy of scale—all dramatically revealed in light and shadow.

Concrete provided a complete construction system in the 70 Federal Street building, which was finished in 1968. This small corner office building required a highly efficient plan while absolutely minimizing its cost (the building ultimately cost around $20.45 per gross square foot, significantly below the $24.50 of State Street and very likely a Boston record for the ages).

LeMessurier confirmed the capacity of an existing foundation on the site from a building demolished years earlier. We set out to design a seven-story building within that foundation’s footprint—in concrete, of course. The solution entailed closely spaced columns, expressed as octagonal elements, along with a waffle slab floor system and only five interior columns. On the exterior, flat pre-cast exposed aggregate slabs deliberately create a secondary scale that forcefully punctuates the geometry of the façade.

In this building, I feel I achieved my desire for an authentic new and relevant architecture in concrete— expressive of universal principles, authenticity, and civility. I hoped this work might contribute to the development of a vocabulary—or even a vernacular— of modest but authoritative architecture.

POSTSCRIPT: WHAT HAPPENED TO CONCRETE CONSTRUCTION?

Two principal developments created the strong trend away from concrete to steel throughout the
1970s. First, the oil embargo of the mid-seventies and the ensuing recession in the building industry were far more serious than many have imagined. Employment of architects in greater Boston was reduced dramatically. Those who could leave New England did so, causing a gap in the supply of younger professionals that was severely inhibiting for the next decade. Concrete construction was dealt a fatal blow, with construction companies, pre-casters, and concrete specialists suffering or closing entirely.

Second, the major emphasis in the building industry was on the reduction of risk. The advent of construction management in the process of building made the more risky, complex, and demanding execution of concrete construction far less attractive than the singular responsibilities of steel sub- contractors. Most general contractors learned to outsource their risk through more extensive sub- contracting. In doing so, they often abandoned the concrete work they once had mastered.

BIOGRAPHY
Tad Stahl was the founder of Stahl Associates Architects and currently serves as Executive Architect of Burt Hill in Boston. His career has spanned five decades, and he was the principal architect of the State Street Bank tower and 70 Federal Street.