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This blog is a place for dialogue on issues and actions relating to Boston's unique built environment and the preservation and continuing evolution of historic resources within it. My goal, as the Executive Director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, is to post timely, relevant and thought-provoking intelligence, ideas, and insights that will engage conversations, inform our actions, and broaden perspectives on preservation.

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Greg Galer, Executive Director, Boston Preservation Alliance

Executive Director

AllianceViews Blog

The Heroic Project, and why concrete architecture absolutely still matters

July 14th, 2015  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance


The Boston Preservation Alliance first met Chris Grimley, Michael Kubo and Mark Pasnik, the men behind the Heroic Project, when we collaborated in 2007 to voice our collective support for the preservation of Boston’s City Hall. If you’ve spent any time at all in Boston, you know that City Hall has been a point of contentious debate among architects and residents for years. Such debate is illustrative of a larger phenomenon: since the end of its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, concrete architecture throughout the United States has often been the unfortunate object of disdain and all too frequently, demolition.

So when we saw that the Heroic Project had a book in the works, focused entirely on the role that concrete architecture has played in Boston’s urban renewal, we were intrigued. The Heroic Project sheds light on and provides context to a style of architecture that is often misunderstood or disliked (or both), and the project seeks to clarify the role that these buildings have played in Boston’s revitalization. We sat down with Chris Grimley, to ask him a bit more about the Heroic Project.

Tell us about the genesis of the Heroic Project.

Chris Grimley: We started the project about eight years ago. When we first founded [our design firm] over,under and established the pinkcomma gallery, Mayor Menino had called for the demolition of City Hall. The gallery, along with ArchitectureBoston magazine, did an issue on City Hall in which seven young design firms proposed reuse and rehabilitation of the building, which was firmly embraced by Michael McKinnell, and Gerhard [Kallmann – architects of City Hall], when he was still alive. They wanted the building to be reused and rethought. We put on that exhibit, it was actually the first one that we did. Then this slow realization dawned that there were many more buildings, like Paul Rudolph’s Blue Cross Blue Shield, for instance, that are constantly under threat. We thought, “Okay, we really need to start documenting these structures in Boston.”

Our initial list was about 150 buildings. The first iteration of the project was a 2009 gallery exhibit, which we called “Heroic.” The project was then shown at Rudolph’s Second Church for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Modern Module in 2010, and recently at the Art Institute of Chicago. Throughout that time, we’ve been working toward the book, which has gone through a number of iterations…because this could easily have been a 1,000-page book!

Can you talk a bit about 1960s-Boston, and how this resurgence in planning and architecture played out and impacted the city going forward?

CG: Pre-1960s Boston was in real danger of economic and physical collapse. There was a lot of blight and rundown areas – there was not a lot of construction going on. The population was shrinking in various parts of the city, people were moving away – it was a real problem. In 1957, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) was established and then-Mayor Collins brought in Ed Logue, who began work on the general plan for the city of Boston, from 1965-1975. The BRA hired different people to look at different parts of the city, whether it was the waterfront, Charlestown, Roxbury, the South End, etc. and to determine how the city needed to grow up, and what needed to be done.

Logue was brought in to ensure that what had happened in the West End didn’t happen again. The idea that urban renewal was just a single monolithic phenomenon is not really true. It’s more nuanced, and there are remarkable histories to be told about that. As positive as we are about the architecture of the time, we also acknowledge the hubris. The project’s title, “Heroic Architecture,” was chosen because every hero as an Achilles Heel. We acknowledge that there are flaws, there are problems. Although, someone has to counteract the monolithic impressions associated with urban renewal.

When describing the Heroic Project, you’ve noted, “Our distance from the heyday of concrete construction further complicates the perception of such buildings, which are generally looked at with disdain.” What additional context would you like people to have about these buildings?  

CG: When these buildings were constructed, it was a remarkably civic gesture. It’s [an example of] the city, state and federal governments investing money in the future of urban places in America. That’s urban renewal in a nut shell, right? There’s rose-colored glasses about historic Boston; people tend to forget the state of affairs in the city [at that time]. There’s a quote that gets thrown around a lot: “Boston was in danger of being lost to the backwaters of history.” So these buildings were constructed with a remarkable civic pride.

From an architectural standpoint, it’s a really rich and dynamic language of building that a lot of these architects were using. Whether it’s Kallmann McKinnell at City Hall or Paul Rudolph at the Government Services Center, there’s a plasticity and formal interest in making shapes and forms that have remarkable nods to history and to the movement of body. For example, the top of City Hall is a riff on the dentals of a classical building. It’s super-scaled, but the larger gestures point toward the functions of the building, so there’s a real transparency with regard to what’s going on. Over time, people have lost that narrative.

What would you say to people who find these buildings difficult to enjoy from an aesthetic standpoint?

CG: We’re only about fifty to sixty years out from these buildings having been built. There’s always a cyclical turning of style of what people like; in addition to that, though, there’s a historical and cultural legacy. It’s necessary to embrace the history of a place in such a way that it ignores style for a while. So with the book, we’re trying to establish that Boston was really the epicenter of this kind of architecture in North America. Because of its international significance – with world-renown architects like Corbusier, Gropius and Rudolph working here – it really is a case study of a moment in history. So to just say, “It’s ugly, tear it down,” is myopic at best.

Calls for demolition of concrete buildings have gotten a lot of play in the media recently.

CG: That’s true, but there are several buildings that have been demolished with little media attention at all. There are a lot of people throughout the country who have their eyes on this, however. The next iteration of the Heroic Project is to do a website for these buildings. Every once in a while, something like Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center will catch the eye of the mainstream press and incite a lot of anger. But at the same time, there are things like Rudolph’s Shoreline Apartments in Buffalo, which are being demolished as we speak, or the MLK School in Cambridge. There are a lot of these places that are under threat. We don’t say that they all need to be kept. There is quality and there is knockoff. But we’re hoping that the website can serve as a resource if there’s a building that someone needs a larger group to take a look at, and at the issues of preservation surrounding what kind of campaigns we could actively engage with, and how we could do it sensitively, so that we’re not jumping every time a building is threatened with demolition.

It’s a difficult project, because there’s so many of these structures and we’re at this moment – we like to say jokingly – where these buildings are in a historical “awkward phase.” It’s part of the story of Boston. You know, the conventional narrative of Boston is that it’s America’s original city, and that’s true. But that rich history is only able to be tapped now, because of the things like general planning, urban renewal and reinvestment. If these things hadn’t happened, Boston would be a St. Louis or a Buffalo, which is not to say that those cities don’t have value! But [architecturally] they definitely didn’t survive the transition from the era of industrial revolution-type work to industries like finance, medicine and education.

Have you seen an increased appreciation for concrete architecture?

CG: Definitely. When we started the project eight years ago, there wasn’t a lot of chatter going on about this kind of work. And in the ensuing years, there’s much more attention being paid – Clog doing an entire issue about these buildings and Tumblrs dedicated to brutalism. There has been a swell of support for this kind of work. I think it might be generational. I mean, our big issue is what we do with post modernism. What do we do with the era after this? Again, there’s this idea that it needs to be more than style. It needs to be viewed through the lens of historical and cultural legacy.

The Heroic Project was created by Chris Grimley, Michael Kubo and Mark Pasnik. For additional information, check out the project’s Kickstarter page. The monetary goal has been reached, and the Heroic Project book is scheduled to be published by The Monacelli Press in October 2015.

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