Fiddich Review Centre

The Clumsy Burial of a Neo-Brutalist Monument in Boston

courtesy NBBJ/Leggat McCall Properties

From the evidence so far made public, it is hard to imagine a more insensitive, clumsy, and inappropriate addition to a building designed by the late architect Paul Rudolph than the one the design firm NBBJ has produced for the Charles F. Hurley Building in Boston. The only sliver of hope for both the building and Boston is that the whole scheme will be rejected. But so far there has been little direct opposition to the evil twins of two very badly designed and intrusive midrise buildings that will soon be stepping all over the horizontal stretch of striated concrete and staccato volumes that make the now-dilapidated building such a good example of civic architecture.

If this is going to be the fate of the Hurley building, to live as a zombie clad in a polyester suit, I would say it would be better to tear it down. If the building is as much of a corpse as the state says it is, bury it, and hold a forensic investigation as to who killed it, then put that entity or those entities on trial for their crimes against architecture.

The Hurley Building is part of a complex whose design was overseen by Rudolph in the early 1960s, though the actual details of the two original buildings and one addition from the 1980s are credited to other firms. Sitting on a crucial site next to the neighborhood of Beacon Hill, it was meant to be citadel of civic purpose serving the then-expanding welfare state with offices and a mental health clinic. It has since become a barely maintained complex hiding a 2.5 acre plaza behind admittedly rather forbidding facades that loom over the street in masses of concrete columns and stacks of elongated floors. It is, in other words, a monument of Neo-Brutalism. Though less well known than the Boston City Hall, which is also in that style, or some of Rudolph’s other buildings, its ability to impress with strong forms carried out in concrete has a similar power to call up a muscular image of civic power.

The cautious endorsements provided by various preservation groups are apparently the result of the fact that the building itself will be saved and will be renovated by Beyer Blinder Belle, the New York firm that for decades now has done by-the-book—though never particularly brilliant—renovations of historical buildings. However, there are no renderings or plans available, so we just have to trust in the firm’s ability to do a decent job. (Neither NBBJ nor Beyer Blinder Belle responded to requests for further comments).

The Hurley Building is less expressive both in its display of pushing and pulling volumes within a stretch of concrete cornices (it is a building that is almost all hat and no piano nobile cattle) and in its interior volumes. They have less civic or, in the case of a chapel, religious import than those in the matching building for the Lindemann Mental Health Center . The latter is essentially a psychiatric clinic, while the Hurley has always housed offices for the State of Massachusetts’ welfare bureaucracy. A 23-story tower that was meant to be an anchor and beacon for the whole complex when it was designed in 1961 was never built.

Randolph's original plaza design for the Boston Government Service Center
By Paul Rudolph
Randolph’s original plaza design for the Boston Government Service Center

Together with the stepped and curved plaza Rudolph intended to evoke Siena’s Piazzo del Campo, the whole complex is now what the Commonwealth calls a “underutilized and uninviting site.” That might be the case, and certainly Rudolph and his collaborating architects (Shepley Bulfinch on the Hurley) pulled no punches in creating a forceful structure. Yet the state of Massachusetts is as much, if not more, to blame for the complex’s current sorry state as the architects. Decades of deferred maintenance, encrustations of security and access measures, and all the paraphernalia of a government bureaucracy with no understanding of the importance of civic space as well as services, have led to the deterioration of what was originally a heroic building. It still is: Stand in front of the Hurley, and you have the sense of how grand and complex our government can be.

Renovations could go far towards bringing back some of those qualities–except that while the state promises that it will be “retaining and complementing large portions of existing structure,” what developers will actually will be doing is breaking open the ground floors, inserting retail, and occupying part of the plaza. There will be little left of the original design intent. Inside there will be “new state offices,” with no design direction indicated.

courtesy NBBJ/Leggat McCall Properties

The truly bad part of the scheme, though, consists of the two towers plunked on top of the Hurley. They will contain “life science” activities, which I assume to mean labs, as well as “200 units of mixed-income housing.” They will be delivered, along with the renovations, by private Boston developer Leggat McCall Properties “at no upfront cost” (but, I assume, against substantial lease payments for the offices later).

The reality of what will appear over, around, and through the building, if we can believe NBBJ’s renderings, are a curved tower clad in a pasty version of the béton brut of the original, stomping all over the Hurley’s midsection with a cascade of columns and curved glass floors before rising to a bizarrely intense rhythm of tightly spaced vertical striations. The second tower is a slab falling apart into curved blocks, I assume to break up the nasty bulk of the thing, and covered in a kind of fritted glass that will occlude whatever work happens in its presumed labs. Bulky and ungainly, it twists and turns when seen from the plaza, again smashing what will be left of the Hurley, while massing into a hulk towards the street façade.

It is in my opinion difficult to imagine two more badly designed, confused, mismatched, and just strange towers. It is also a stretch to try to think of architecture that would be less sympathetic to—or in some sort of critical relation at least with—the original design. The same is true of what we can see of the base additions, which ram right past the three-story facades with glass and metal pavilions that will no doubt house both Starbucks and Panera stores. The final indignity these designs promise is a façade in which the ribbing of the concrete, Rudolph’s technique for breaking of concrete expanses and catching light, has disappeared in favor of what appears to be acres of neo-stucco (as stucco itself will probably be too expensive) bands that will be filled in with flush and seamless glass.

If this is going to be the fate of the Hurley building, to live as a zombie clad in a polyester suit, I would say it would be better to tear it down. If the building is as much of a corpse as the state says it is, bury it, and hold a forensic investigation as to who killed it, then put that entity or those entities on trial for their crimes against architecture. Don’t commit a further transgression by transforming the body into a Frankenstein’s monster whose bad design will only wreck further havoc on the city .

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

Read more: Aaron Betsky has recently traveled the globe, finding optimism in collective action in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, walking the streets of the Postmodern “theme park” that is Portmeirion, and exploring Assemble’s neighborhood activism in Liverpool.

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