Great buildings should be preserved

Apr. 16--Great buildings should be preserved and restored, as Yale University plans to do with its Art and Architecture center, not demolished and replaced, as Mayor Menino envisions for Boston City Hall. The mayor needs to return to his roots as a preservationist to save and improve this icon of the New Boston in the 1960s.

In New Haven last week, Robert Stern, dean of the School of Architecture, was busy preparing to move the school out of the building for a year so that it could be fitted with new ceilings, lighting, and air conditioning. "It's extremely important," he said of the building, which was designed by Paul Rudolph and finished in 1963. "It represented a break from the increasingly wayward direction of modern architecture."

Stern was referring to the glass towers that were going up in midtown Manhattan at the time. Rudolph's creation, seven stories of gray concrete, couldn't be mistaken for one of those. With its prominent ribs and rough surface, it begs to be noticed as it faces the established New Haven neighborhood and the more subdued University Art Gallery, another outstanding modern building, designed by Louis Kahn.

The Rudolph building was controversial from the start. Sculpture students picketed because they thought their basement studios were inadequate. The dean in the 1970s loathed it so much that, following a fire in 1969, he upended Rudolph's design for the interior. The School of Art, never keen to share space with the architects, moved across the street in 2000.

And yet, most architects at Yale never wavered in their support, partly because they knew Rudolph when he was the dean of the school in the 1960s. And while Stern wouldn't say how much the renovation will cost (it's part of a $500 million renewal of the arts complex), the university didn't show any reluctance about restoring the interior to Rudolph's 1960s vision and updating its electric and climate-control systems.

The Art and Architecture Building is located on the fringes of Yale, a long block from the Old Campus, which is the heart of the university. Yale in 1963 was much as it is today -- one of the pre eminent universities in the world. The Rudolph building represents its attempt to come to terms with the modern movement in architecture, but its construction was not a defining moment for the university.

Not so with Boston City Hall. While the Rudolph building was being constructed in 1962, the leadership of Boston, both public and private, organized a competition to design a building that through its use of modern materials and modern shapes would convey an unambiguous message: Boston was confident; Boston embraced the new; and even though many of its leaders had moved to the suburbs, the government and private sector were committed to the revival of downtown. The design by Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood, a local firm, gave them exactly what they wanted.

"It put Boston back on the architectural map," Stern said of City Hall, showing a sketchbook he had made of the design when he was a student at Yale. Stern sees a bit of John F. Kennedy in the design, with his belief in the power of government to effect change. Through the busing troubles of the 1970s, the building stood as a reminder of the underlying strength of the city. Smart development policies facilitated the rebirth of a dowdy downtown. The formidable presence of City Hall facilitated the restoration of Quincy Market in 1976. By the 1980s, the city was ready to take off, and it remains prosperous and exciting to this day.

Yet 35 to 40 years after construction, Stern acknowledges that buildings like City Hall or the Art and Architecture center are out of fashion. "It's hard to get preservationists to rally on their behalf," he said.

Not all modernist buildings are worth saving. We on this page have no great love for Rudolph's design at 133 Federal St. in Boston, which was a warm up for the more distinctive Art and Architecture Building. (Stern disagrees with us here.) But there can be no question that City Hall is a landmark of 20th century architecture.

Like the Art and Architecture Building, it is not widely beloved, except by architects. It has not received the incremental improvements to the interior that would make it more user-friendly. It's been fixed up from time to time, but after almost 40 years of hard use, it needs the kind of refurbishment that the Yale building is about to get.

Twenty years ago, Tom Menino, an up-and-coming city councilor from Hyde Park, distinguished himself by his support for historic preservation in Roslindale Village and in downtown landmarks such as the Granary Burying Ground. Mayor Menino's greatest preservationist challenge now involves the building he knows so well that he wants to destroy it. Yale's treatment of Rudolph's masterpiece offers a better approach to historic Boston City Hall.

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