How "Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston" Hopes to Reclaim America's Concrete Heritage

Paul Rudolph, Government Service Center (1962-71). Image © Mark Pasnik

In 2007, when the late Mayor Thomas Menino announced his intentions to demolish Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles' iconic Boston City Hall, he gave voice to a tragic but all-too-common popular discomfort with midcentury concrete architecture. Concerned that this threat was only the latest symptom of a pervasive misunderstanding of the significance of the concrete tradition, three architects - Mark Pasnik, Chris Grimley, and Michael Kubo - joined forces shortly thereafter to launch "The Heroic Project" and share their appreciation for this unfairly maligned chapter of architectural history. In addition to creating an internet web archive, Pasnik, Grimley, and Kubo jointly authored a forthcoming historical survey, Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, scheduled to be released by The Monacelli Press in October 2015, which recasts the cultural and political story behind America's concrete heritage.

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Kallmann, McKinnell, & Knowles, Boston City Hall (1962-69). Image © Mark Pasnik

Currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, the publisher describes this endeavor as follows:

"Heroic is a deep survey and analysis of a broad range of Boston’s concrete architecture–often mistakenly dubbed with the term Brutalism. As a worldwide phenomenon, building with concrete represents one of the major architectural movements of the postwar years, but in Boston it was deployed in more numerous and diverse civic, cultural, and academic projects than in any other major U.S. city... With thirty buildings profiled, the book presents the concrete structures that defined Boston during this remarkable period, showing the city as a laboratory for refined experiments in concrete construction. It includes hundreds of archival and contemporary images, essays by renowned architectural historians, and interviews with a number of the architects who produced magnificent works in Boston in this period."

In anticipation of Heroic's forthcoming release this fall, ArchDaily spoke with Pasnik, Grimley, and Kubo, the forces behind this project.

Marcel Breuer & Associates, Madison Park High School (1966-77). Image © Mark Pasnik
Marcel Breuer & Associates, Madison Park High School (1966-77). Image © Chris Grimley

AD: You refer to these projects as "Heroic" rather than by their more common periodization as "Brutalist." What motivated this decision?

MP: There are many reasons behind our critique of the term "Brutalism," most important that it is inaccurate and broadly misapplied to the work we are examining in Boston. The same is true for buildings throughout the United States. The term's lineage is complex, growing (among other sources) out of the Smithsons and Reyner Banham's "New Brutalism." But by the time it became just "Brutalism," it had been stripped of much of its earlier meanings and ethical dimensions, becoming a somewhat incorrect stand-in for anything concrete from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Add to this the fact that nearly all of the architects we interviewed said they didn't agree with the term being applied to their own work and you get the clear sense that Brutalism isn't the right historical descriptor.

Beyond this, the term comes with a lot of negative connotations, and again, these are inaccurate for the buildings in Boston that we are using as a case study for a larger national movement. Across the U.S., concrete structures were designed during a time of optimism where positive investment was occurring in the civic realm. Their ambitions reflected these facts, so characterizing them as "brutal" sets the entirely wrong tone. It has, we believe, shaped their continued negative public reception today.

CG: For us, the term Heroic offers a counterpoint, one that more accurately reflects these buildings' underlying civic-minded intentions and that is drawn from the history of the period. The Smithsons used the word "heroic" to harken to an earlier era of modernism as a standard to rise up to, whereas Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown used it as a critique of the "heroic and original," against which they posited the "ugly and ordinary" as a way forward. Heroic therefore has a balanced character of endorsement and critique – both the aspiration as well as the flaw that characterizes the tragic hero in mythology – whereas Brutalism can only be read negatively.

I.M. Pei & Partners and Araldo Cossutta, Associated Architects, Christian Science Center (1964-73). Image © Mark Pasnik
I.M. Pei & Partners and Araldo Cossutta, Associated Architects, Christian Science Center (1964-73). Image © Mark Pasnik

AD: Your historical contextualization of this tradition understands it as a targeted architectural response to socio-ethical needs of the postwar era. To what degree do you perceive the subsequent underappreciation of Heroic buildings as symptomatic of transformations in the broader American political establishment?

MK: The end of the Heroic era and the underappreciation of these buildings since then reflects a shift in both architectural and political attitudes. In the book we bracket the story of Boston’s Heroic modernism beginning in 1960 with the arrival of Ed Logue as visionary director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and ending in 1976, the year of the nation’s Bicentennial celebrations and the opening of Boston's renewed Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall Marketplace. These later events reflected a change in public mentality, with a shift toward an interest in engaging history and historical forms. At the same time, criticism of both concrete modernism and urban renewal had become widespread.

Politically, by 1976 there had also been a deep shift in cultural and professional investment in concrete as an appropriate medium for expressing civic aspirations. The rising costs of the Vietnam War impacted the Nixon administration’s defunding of federal and civic construction after 1968, while the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 and the corresponding recession in the United States called into question the energy performance of monolithic construction. All of these factors contributed to the demise of concrete architecture in the United States.

CG: Many of these structures suffer from what we refer to as “active neglect.” This has been the case with Boston City Hall, where mayoral dislike of the building, especially under the previous mayor, Thomas M. Menino, led to a concerted lack of maintenance over decades. For municipal, state, and federal buildings, rarely is there sufficient funding in governmental budgets to properly maintain their original characteristics in an economy where privatization and public-private partnerships have trumped direct public investment. The stubborn presence of Heroic civic architecture in an era marked by a lack of faith in government reflects the dramatic shift in political and social attitudes over the past four decades.

MP: In many ways, we've changed more than the buildings have. That's part of the problem.

Kallmann, McKinnell, & Knowles, Boston City Hall (1962-69). Image © Mark Pasnik
Eduardo Catalano, Charlestown Branch Library (1967-70). Image © Mark Pasnik

AD: Why focus on Boston?

MP: We might answer your question in two ways. Why did we choose for the book to focus on Boston, and why did this work appear so consistently here in the 1960s and 1970s? They are both related answers. In terms of the publication, this is the first in-depth study of Boston's concrete modernism, and we felt it was a subject of both local and national importance. In many ways, we use Boston as a case study to larger national issues: questions about the nature of these buildings and how they came into being need to be better understood today when many concrete modern buildings across the country are reaching the end of their first life. Boston offers a focused lens through which we can examine such issues of national significance.

The second part is why Boston developed this language so consistently in the first place. In many senses, it was an incredible confluence of varied factors over decades that led to Heroic architecture flourishing so densely and with such high quality in one city. These range from historical factors to the presence of strong individuals like Ed Logue who pushed a modernizing agenda.

MK: Mark's right. The factors were historical, political, and architectural. In the 1950s, Boston had essentially become an economic backwater through decades of neglect and lack of construction that was caused by the political stalemate between the Curley administration, which was famously corrupt, and the economic powerbrokers who refused to invest in the city. Things began to change when Boston underwent a political transformation with the watershed election of John Hynes in 1949 and later with the election of John Collins in 1959.

Hynes set the groundwork for Collins, who in 1960 brought in Ed Logue from New Haven as the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Logue was given sweeping powers to harness federal funds in remaking the city to spur its economic rejuvenation. He oversaw an ambitious and controversial program of urban renewal that included high design standards as one of its aspirations and drew from an incredible pool of talents locally at Harvard and MIT as well as nationally and internationally. Concrete was the chosen material for the majority of this work. The result was an intense need for new buildings across the city combined with a rigorous design review process, leading to architects of international renown building in a shared vocabulary of concrete modernism. Among these architects were Breuer, The Architects Collaborative, Kallmann and McKinnell, Le Corbusier, Pei and his cohorts Cossutta and Cobb, Rudolph, Sert, and many others.

Marcel Breuer & Associates, Madison Park High School (1966-77). Image © Mark Pasnik

AD: What is it that you understand (or hope for) Heroic architecture to represent, particularly within the context of collective social memory?

MK: For us the concrete buildings of the Heroic era stand as reminders of a time when civic investment in the public realm was possible and achieved with high standards. The architects of the best Heroic buildings really embraced the future wholeheartedly, for better or worse. They sought to imagine a stronger civic society through the renewal of the city.

CG: Cities like Boston used bold, centralized action to rejuvenate their economies, in the process creating a legacy of modern buildings that are fascinating. At the same time, the lessons of the Heroic era are complicated and aren’t always clear. The urban renewal strategies were hard-headed and often disassembled existing communities and neighborhoods. Many of the aspirations of the time were left incomplete or failed to deliver on their promises, but we can learn from them as well. It would be a shame if such compelling and comprehensive visions were allowed to fall victim to a throwaway culture today.

MK: In 2015, we don't have the benefit of the same public investment that occurred in the 1960s. Instead, we depend on commercial activity and private investment to shape our public realm. All of us think this is a shame. The book attempts to document the buildings and voices of the Heroic era to remind us of a time when civic society rose to principles and aspirations that today, for us at least, seem urgent. We want the public and architects who might reshape these structures to understand that they were conceived with a mindset that aimed to ennoble and enrich public life through a more robust, expressive architectural language than the by-then common modes of glass-and-steel modernism had employed.

MP: My feeling is that the public could eventually develop increased fondness or at least respect for Heroic architecture if the buildings were in better shape. After all, these are pretty spectacular constructions, with imagination and guts. What's not to like about that?

I.M. Pei & Partners, Green Center for Earth Sciences (1959-76). Image © Mark Pasnik

AD: What do you see as the greatest threat to the preservation of Heroic architecture?

MP: I think the single greatest threat to these buildings is the fact that the public misunderstands them and, in general, doesn't like concrete architecture. Such buildings are often called "ugly" by those who haven't taken time to learn anything about them and who think they should simply be torn down. For me, that diminishes the role of architecture to a simplistic stylistic one, when in fact, there are many other questions that arise about any building and its worth for preservation. Culturally they reflect an era's aspirations, architecturally they demonstrate the vibrant community of ideas that evolve in an urban context, physically they hold an enormous embodied energy that is lost if we simply demolish and replace. The future of Heroic architecture, indeed any architecture, should be tied to many more questions than whether someone at a particular moment in time thinks it is "pretty."

I should add we are not preservationists in the strictest of terms. Like many in the preservation community, we acknowledge these buildings often are in need of transformation. We'd like that to happen with intelligence and reflecting a thoughtful response to what they are and how they were conceived. This is a more suitable way to proceed rather than powering up the wrecking ball. In fact, over the last two years I've been developing proposals with colleagues and students at Wentworth Institute of Technology and involving several other institutions to look for ways to transform Paul Rudolph's Government Service Center. We have been working with the owners of the site, the Massachusetts agency known as DCAMM (Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance), to study ways to retain the building, while densifying the site and animating a sector of the city that has never achieved the original goals set by Rudolph and Logue.

CG: Our practice over,under also made a proposal for Boston City Hall, which really launched the whole Heroic Project eight years ago, when Mayor Menino spoke about tearing the building down. More recently I taught a studio at Northeastern University that looked at graphic interventions to answer some of the way-finding problems that continue to plague that building. Boston's current mayor, Martin Walsh, has now launched an RFP to study City Hall's future. It seems to be in more enlightened hands these days than it was a few years back, with the prospect, we hope, of renewing it.

MK: There's also a deeper challenge to our understanding of temporality in architecture, one that is still evident in the public reception problem Mark is describing. Many of these buildings are around fifty years old: they have lacked maintenance, and are neither old enough to have been accepted as part of the historical fabric of the city, nor new enough to still be in their original working order or thought of as contemporary or progressive. Many need major overhauls to their mechanical systems, window replacements, upgrades to their concrete surfaces, and repairs to fix other technical or code problems.

In fact, the fifty-year age range has often been the very moment where buildings from other historical periods have faced their greatest danger of demolition. We think of this as the “middle age” of these buildings, at the end of their first useful life but not yet conceived of in terms of their second. This is typically the moment at which major investment needs to be made again, and this is often exactly when the pressure to demolish or fundamentally alter a building is strongest, rather than making that investment. This isn't unique to the Heroic period. For instance, the original Penn Station was completed in 1910 and demolished in 1963 for being outmoded, to enormous regret later on. The historic preservation movement as we know it in the United States was in fact largely born out of a similar attempt to argue for the legacy of underappreciated Victorian-era buildings that had reached the same middle age.

Our goal with the book and with the advocacy website we hope to develop is to help ensure we don't reach a similar state of regret with Heroic buildings.

Le Corbusier with Sert, Jackson & Gourley, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (1963). Image © Mark Pasnik

You can learn more about The Heroic Project via the link below.

The Heroic Project

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Cite: David Langdon. "How "Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston" Hopes to Reclaim America's Concrete Heritage" 26 Jun 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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