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Historic Boston was built of brick, a legacy that gave way in the ’60s to the so-called Brutalist style – and now to big, boring boxes. Is there a better way? (Photos: NilmaBoston/flickr, adecusatis/flickr, mattystevenson/flickr)

Dark green banners hang from light posts all over the South Boston waterfront, proclaiming “the innovation district,” Boston’s newest neighborhood. Scaffolding and construction cranes forecast the arrival of Vertex Pharmaceuticals and State Street Bank. Business developments with thousands of workers are aiming to make Waterside Place and Marina Park Drive the city’s hot new addresses. The 12,000-square-foot innovation center on Seaport Boulevard is designed to be 100 percent “writeable’’ – so every interior surface can serve as a whiteboard for brainstorming.

It’s all very impressive, but it doesn’t look much like Boston. After all, it isn’t brick.

Brick is to Boston what the mansard roof is to Paris: an instantly recognizable architectural marker. From Beacon Hill to the South End, the familiar red stone gives a pleasing uniformity to Boston’s historic streetscape. Fenway Park is mostly brick. The Freedom Trail is brick. Even some of Boston’s newer structures, such as the transportation building, Rowes Wharf and the Moakley Courthouse, are brick.

When Boston has abandoned brick as its preferred building material, it has often regretted the affair. The Hancock Tower, designed in glass and steel by Henry Cobb and I.M. Pei, is almost universally beloved today, but in the 1970s it was a civic embarrassment, with severe wind tunnels and 500-pound glass windowpanes crashing to the ground. And Boston has never really gotten over its traumatic flirtation with the unfortunately named Brutalist style of architecture, exemplified by City Hall and Government Center.

Despite what many people think, the term Brutalism isn’t, in fact, a descriptive adjective, but refers only to the French phrase beton brut, or raw concrete. Some preservationists and others who admire the severe, powerful lines of the Brutalist style are trying to push the term “heroic” as an alternative, but the psychological damage has already been done.

Brutalism isn’t under fire just in historic Boston. The government center building in Orange County, N.Y., – designed by Paul Rudolph, also architect of the federal Hurley Building and Lindemann Mental Health Center in Boston – is on the World Monuments Fund’s “watch list” to protect it from the wrecking ball. Several others of Rudolph’s schools and municipal buildings have been razed or substantially renovated.

My own private theory is that the attack on Brutalism coincides with the current cultural disdain for government. Can it be a coincidence that most of the Brutalist buildings in the United States house public-sector functions like courts, schools or, as in Boston, employment offices? A style that was intended to convey endurance and stability looks a lot like unchecked totalitarianism to devotees of the Tea Party.

In any case, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and other boosters seem determined to avoid either brick fetishism or modernist iconoclasm in the new innovation district. Sadly, what we have instead are too many big, bland, corporate boxes and chain restaurants that, if not for their nautical addresses, could be in downtown Phoenix.

The question for the new Boston is about more than to brick or not to brick. It is also about how to build a vibrant, culturally diverse neighborhood of real places for real people: biotech nerds and tourists, sure, but also artists, students, families, small businesses – a bakery, a school, a hardware store. And then make it safe and welcoming and accessible to a mix of incomes. Now that would be a real innovation.

Tags: Architecture, Boston, Design

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  • ScrappyT

    Thanks for the background on the brutalist term. I think part of the disdain for these buildings has to do with how poorly they have aged. The staining and discoloration on the facades of these buildings brings to mind “decrepit” more than “heroic.”
    Also, in my opinion, civic buildings should be inviting to the public, rather than foreboding. City hall is also confusing to navigate and unwelcoming on the inside. Every time I have to go there I feel as if I am in the Terry Gilliam movie “Brazil.”

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