By David Brussat
April 29, 2010
Illustrations: Above, Boston’s City Hall Plaza design by Aaron Helfand. Below, Scolley Square; Helfand’s Boston City Hall; ground plans of Siena, Boston’s City Hall Plaza today and Helfand’s plaza; Piazza del Campo; James Bond in Siena; Siena’s Palazzo Publico; Boston City Hall; Boston’s City Hall Plaza
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While we wait for readers to choose the ugliest building in Providence, here’s a coincidence that unfolded after putting my last week’s column, “You pick your city’s ugliest building,” to bed last Wednesday.
I took the train here for a board meeting of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America. Later, four of us, including a newly inducted member of the board, went for drinks on Newbury Street.
The next morning, I was trolling the Internet to illustrate the blog version of my column on projo.com, which I can stuff with as much art as I have the patience to gather. I happened upon a Boston Globe online slide show displaying readers’ ideas for reviving several Boston construction projects gone belly up. One was for a new Boston City Hall below) by none other than Aaron Helfand, the new ICA&CA board member from the evening before.
The images were from Helfand’s master’s thesis helfandthesis.pdf at Notre Dame’s architecture school, “Siena’s Piazza del Campo as a Precedent for Boston.” If he were a less accomplished diplomat, he’d have titled it “Defenestration of the Absurd Idea that Boston City Hall Plaza Bears the Slightest Resemblance to Siena’s Piazza del Campo.”
In an e-mail letting me use images from his thesis, Helfand wrote, “I’ve always had an antagonistic relationship with the current Boston city hall and plaza, so spending a semester dreaming up my own ideal version was a lot of fun.”
His thesis begins: “In September of 2004, the Project for Public Places published rankings of the best and the worst public squares and plazas in the world. Topping the list of the best public spaces was the Piazza del Campo in Siena. City Hall Plaza in Boston, a design explicitly modeled on the Campo, held the corresponding place on the list of the world’s worst public spaces.”
He adds, “While the urban design strategy [by Kallmann McKinnell & Wood] claims to take Siena as a starting point, even as it inverts most of Siena’s formal principles, there is no similarly explicit allusion with regard to the architectural expression of the buildings themselves. To the designers of City Hall and Government Center, Siena’s architecture would have seemed as irrelevant as Boston’s own pre-existing architecture (a good portion of which was literally discarded in the creation of the new City Hall and Plaza).”
Helfand describes Siena’s architecture and its piazza’s friendliness to pedestrians. Readers may have seen the last James Bond movie Quantum of Solace (see photo just below), which opens with a car chase through Siena’s narrow streets — a scene that raises your hair because American visitors can’t even imagine inching a car through Siena.
Helfand describes how the Piazza del Campo achieves a design hierarchy, mounting gradually from plain to noble buildings, that easily enables one to identify the Palazzo Publico (city hall).
“Boston’s City Hall Plaza presents the first-time visitor with a far murkier picture of the relationship of the City Hall to the city. In adopting an architectural aesthetic that deliberately rejected any reference to local precedent, the designers of Boston City Hall and the other buildings of Government Center ensured a profound discontinuity with the rest of the city, creating a disjuncture not only in time but also in place. . . . Thus, the problem is less that the current Boston City Hall has the improper relationship to the rest of the buildings in the city, but rather that we have no reasonable way of understanding what its relationship is at all. When we look at the Palazzo Publico in the Campo, or at the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill, the buildings reflect a government that belongs to the society it governs. There is no such clarity at City Hall Plaza.”
Helfand’s proposed city hall solves that problem by genuinely engaging the precedents of both Siena and Boston. “My argument here is not for a close imitation of Siena’s particular architectural style (Boston has little use for crenellations). Rather, I am advocating an application of the principles of design which are manifested in both Sienese and Bostonian architecture.”
Helfand has, of course, forgotten that buildings today are supposed to kick each other in the shins and elbow each other in the ribs while yelling and screaming for attention, creating in the process a chaotic ambiance that undermines the idea of the city as a stage where civic life can unfold amid the calming caress of civic beauty.
Boston can turn back toward civility by adopting Aaron Helfand’s ideas for civic development. Providence should head in a similar direction, although to judge by the voting thus far on the ugliest buildings here, some readers disagree.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board (firstname.lastname@example.org). His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Now and Then.