The Edward W. Brooke Courthouse, Boston
Over the Labor Day weekend, my spouse and I were in New England attending the wedding of two close friends. On the return leg of the trip, we had some time to kill in Boston before catching our late afternoon return flight to Baltimore, which afforded us the opportunity to do some sightseeing. We parked the rental car and decided to get out and do some exploring on foot. As we began our excursion, it didn’t take long to recall how enjoyable it is for me to experience architecture by seeing it up close and personal.
The product of architecture can be likened to art, but it is art that we occupy. Fine architecture, like fine art or wine, is a learned appreciation. Without getting too deep into its underlying principles, I think that we can all agree that we know “good” architecture when we see it. But what comprises “good” architecture? I posit, as do many other writers on the subject, that it can be sifted down to some very basic principles: scale, proportion, context, and appropriate use of materials being among them. Starting with the basic premise that we all know what we like and don’t like, architecture can be viewed in this very same simplistic way; we are all capable of recognizing “good” architecture instantly when we see it and vice versa.
BOSTON CITY HALL
Boston is famous for having some examples of really bad architecture. When I was in school studying architecture at the University of Maryland, the Boston City Hall – designed by the architectural firm of Kallman, McKinnel, and Knowles – and its associated plaza was always exemplified as “bad” and “what not to do” in the practice of architecture.
Black and white images of this eyesore were projected on the big screen of the lecture hall as one professor after another just excoriated this structure. Reasons cited for why it is bad are: it’s unfriendly streetscape – the blank masonry walls at street level that are devoid of windows and do nothing to engage with the public; its barren wasteland of a plaza with hard surfaces and devoid of trees or landscaping lacks a sense of place making it difficult for people to occupy; and its architectural style, Brutalism, is just like the word implies – brutal. Thankfully, Brutalism had its day which is now passed, but we are still plagued with these eyesores on the landscape in many of our urban settings.
THE MASSACHUSETTS STATE HOUSE
But there was a time in American architecture when architects designed great monumental civic buildings. Just a few short blocks away from the Boston City Hall is the Massachusetts State House, built in 1798, and designed by Charles Bulfinch, which exudes class and elegance.
The State House echoes the characteristics of many architectural styles, but can best be categorized as Neo-Classical. The structure’s base features rusticated stonework that is reminiscent of Roman palazzos, and is separated from the upper stories by a strong horizontal band of stonework. The upper stories in yellow brick are well appointed with articulated pilasters and engaged columns adorned in the classical orders.
The entire structure is capped by an imposing monumental dome, covered in gold leaf, which gleams in the early morning sunlight. This is an example of good architecture, which is why it survives to this day.
THE EDWARD W. BROOKE COURTHOUSE
|Entrance to Edward Brooke Courthouse|
The building’s main entrance features a boring unadorned and unarticulated horizontal entablature supported on tall spindly columns with no base, unarticulated capitals, and apparent lack of entasis. The entry is horribly out of scale and proportion to the rest of the elevation, and the doors are too small.
This problem has been successfully addressed by architects of good examples of civic structures by employing the “door set within a door” concept, characterized by a larger door that is appropriately scaled to be in proportion to the rest of the building and also to the monumental landscape on which the building fronts, while a smaller inset door addresses the pedestrian scale. Virtually all of the buildings on the National Mall in Washington, DC and the National Archives Building have entry doors that employ this feature. If only the architects at KMK had bothered to open a book or use some of that commission money to take a short 1-hour flight down to DC. But instead, this firm’s attempt at resolving the problem of appropriate scaling of a monumental building’s entrance is weak, whimpy, and totally inappropriate.
The building’s main entrance is flanked by mean looking arched openings which appear to be the air intakes for the building’s mechanical system. Because of the manner in which these openings have been celebrated and articulated, they appear to be better suited for a prison. The grossly out of scale blocks of the arch don’t even attempt to mimic actual loadbearing stone construction; note in the image below how the blocks of the arch stop short of even implying that they directly bear on the adjoining masonry on either side of the arch. And as if this weren’t bad enough, the architect provided benches set into the building’s façade. Like who would want to sit there?
The portico is so grossly out of scale that it is difficult to occupy. The portico’s columns are too narrow and totally out of scale and proportion to the rest of the building. Note how the roof elevation has been set so high there is no way that this portico offers protection to pedestrians at the street level.
The portico fronts onto a sunken plaza that has been poorly conceived and even more poorly executed. It’s just an abysmal place to be, which is evidenced by the lack of people in this image taken on a day in late summer.
And finally, what’s with the elevated temple that has been slammed into the building’s entrance façade multiple stories above grade? The multi-storied columns again are too tall, spindly, unadorned, unarticulated, and out of proportion to the rest of the building’s elevation. This looks ridiculous.
Back to Basics
By far, the worst part of all this is that Government-employed architects reviewed and approved this design, and it was constructed with taxpayer money. We, as a community and as a society, have to do better; we have to demand better performance from architects. This building is such a disaster and should never have been constructed. It is such an eyesore that it is difficult to know where to begin critiquing it.
There was a time in our country’s history when we knew how to build classic monumental civic buildings. We have to return to those days. With looming budget deficits and ballooning national debt, resources are truly scarce. Government-employed architects must be true stewards of these resources. We have to design and construct our civic buildings to last. This horrific structure will not last 50 years; it is only 10 years old now and already showing wear and tear. This building was truly a waste of taxpayer dollars.