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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

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2017 Preservation Achievement Award Winner: Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston

In conjunction with our 29th Annual Preservation Achievement Awards, we are profiling each of this year's winning projects. Follow this series to get a special look at projects that honor and update the character of Boston.

September 5th, 2017  |  Posted by: Boston Preservation Alliance


2017 is the first time the Alliance has recognized a book with a Preservation Achievement Award. Yet the right book and an opportune time can do as much to encourage quality preservation as any physical structure. Here a book opens eyes to the context and value of a long-challenged architectural style of great significance to Boston’s evolution.

“Heroic is a story about a material, a city, and a movement. Told in many voices, it examines a bold legacy of Boston’s concrete architecture during a brief but critical era between 1960 and 1976, when the city witnessed a wholesale transformation through powerful and often controversial policies of civic intervention,” begins the book which was eight years in the making.  In Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley examine this Brutalist chapter in Boston’s architectural history and make the case for reclaiming and relabeling it as ‘Heroic’ instead. The three authors are architects, teach regularly, and offer their insights to the public via magazines, journals, and this collaborative work. When the late Mayor Thomas Menino announced in 2007 that he intended to replace Boston’s iconic City Hall, the authors united to research and assign value to this previously disregarded and misinterpreted era of architecture. The threat to Boston City Hall illuminated a popular aversion not only to the building itself but to the trend of concrete civic structures that represent a pivotal moment in Boston’s evolution.

The ‘Heroic’ buildings that the team studied emerged from the stagnation and government corruption of Boston’s post-war era. Many other American and international cities partook in the trend of concrete modernism, but Boston built more concrete civic and academic buildings than any other city in the United States.  What followed was a city reignited by imagination and growth, which the authors claim was in part a result of this new architecture. Even when Boston City Hall, the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, the Government Service Center, and many more buildings with similar, bold sentiments were built, they were received with the same uncertainty that they conjure to this day. Some people identified these buildings as symbols of Boston’s growth and modernism, while others argued that they took away from the aesthetic of Boston’s historic brownstones, rowhouses, and landmarks. Nearly the same difference of opinion has been sustained by Bostonians through today.

Pasnik, Kubo, and Grimley argue that the public recoils at the sight of what they perceive as heavy, harsh, and oppressive in part because of the term used to describe them. ‘Brutalism’ conjures a negativity that leaves little room for debate from the moment it is uttered. The team says that it also gives way to interpretations of these buildings as overbearing and heavy, or in other words, brutal. The authors emphasize that in reality, the architects aspired to create an optimistic civil realm suitable for its citizens and for its own growth in the future. The authors find the term ‘heroic’ to better describe the complexities of these buildings within the social realities of their time. The term’s lineage comes from Reyner Banhma and then the Smithsons, but it evolves in the eyes of the authors as a representation of the complicated relationship between aspirations and legacies. Mark Pasnik says, “For us, ‘Heroic’ has this kind of duality—it’s an aspiring term but there’s also a critique in it. If you think of ancient Greek heroes, they have an Achilles heel and I think that fits well with this work because it’s aspiring to a lot but it also had a sense of hubris and maybe failure within its aspirations.” The term simultaneously highlights the dignified aspirations of concrete modernism while ceding the vulnerabilities of the nuanced architectural period.

Pasnik, Kubo, and Grimley challenge the far too common distaste and discomfort with 1960s and 1970s concrete construction. Through an extremely thoughtful lens, the authors are able to impart their understanding of the material, design, and sociological period as a representation of one previously vilified chapter in Boston’s architectural history. This book demonstrates that these misunderstood buildings deserve careful examination and that they contribute a distinct legacy to the evolution of the city.

Project Details: Authors & Editors: Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley
Publisher: The Monacelli Press

Written and researched by Jessica Saunders.

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