boston uncommon

Back Bay to the South

Summertime leads most Americans to vacation; vacation requires travel. This summer, it appears my only travel-based vacation occurred last weekend during a fast family trip to Boston. For the record, I’d rather hit a big city for a weekend, than spend a week on a beach. Agree or sigh that I’m nuts, either way this is what I prefer.

profound….why do we make life so complicated?

Our compass pointed towards our Massachusetts friends as many of our recent trips started with a trip to an MLB stadium to see a game and to permit our son to collect another hat from a ballpark. Since most, if not all these stadiums occur in large cities, I win as an architect with the added bonus to stop, if for but a moment, at works of architecture and fabrics of city life. As I’ve written in the past, seeing buildings or experiencing spaces and neighborhoods in person is far better than trying to divine them from the brilliant photographer’s cropped wonders.

After a night in Fenway, we got one day (yes only one) to see something in this historic New England gem.


With two math geniuses in tow, my allocation for architecture is somewhat reduced to walk-bys and since our time was limited, there was no formal tour or no in-depth time spent at any location. Needless to say, I was still pleased with our tour and grateful to see several fine works in person. All that to say, most of my stops consist of a brief visit, a few photographs, a sketch if possible and then I reassess later as I ponder the trip and consider what I can glean from another’s work. Credit goes to my son (and Reddit) for finding great local spots to eat.

I don’t necessarily choose places that I like specifically, but places that are available and places that might make me think. To me this is simple, but too often conversations stagnate as many unnecessarily conflate these two constructs.

I agree, most of these places are technically in Cambridge. Sorry Boston, I do know the difference, but we appreciate you hosting us and letting us use your transit system.

Below are images of some places we stopped, and I share my visceral reaction as by no means can I lend a response from a thorough knowledge of each place or an understanding from the architect’s point of view from their own writings or other publications. I’m not convinced that is always necessary, as the uninformed public gets a voice as they interact with the buildings daily and the resultant spaces created. May I gamble and offer that an intimate knowledge of the building and architect are not part of the users’ perception.

This is opinion, not based on like or dislike. I’d love to converse about your likes, but I’m not interested in that as much as whether a building works and if that be discerned upon a first encounter. Hopefully that difference is clear as it makes for a far more stimulating conversation.

Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, 24 Quincy St, Cambridge, MA 02138, Le Corbusier 1963 (collaboration of Chilean architect Guillermo Jullian de la Fuente)


Anything by our friend Corbu elicits an endless conversation about intentions and results. All I can say is as we moved from Quincy Street to Prescott Street, we made a brief pause walking through the building and traversing the famous ramp. It was quite fascinating to leave a world of expected collegiate presence to one that reoriented our view past the new addition to the Busch-Reisinger Museum towards Broadway. In other words, if there were or are criticisms of a foreign language inserted into the classical fabric of an old institution, this quietly asserts itself as a thoughtful wonder waiting to be discovered at the casual turn of a corner. I wish we had more time; I could have spent hours here.


Busch-Reisinger Museum Addition
, Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St, Cambridge, MA 02138, Renzo Piano Workshop 2014


An unplanned view of this recent addition was not on my radar, but upon exiting the CCVA, there it was. My initial reaction was positive as there is a lot of architecture to stare at and consider. Up close the details seem well conceived as materials blend with each other. However, upon reflection, like most museums, it seems overworked and in the words of a friend of mine “is it possible to try too hard?”


Arthur M. Sackler Museum
, 485 Broadway, Cambridge MA, James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates 1985

Obviously, there is some construction underway. Other than that, I got nothing. RIP Jim, you fashioned the best axonometric drawings out there.


Ray and Maria Stata Cente
r, MIT, 32 Vassar St, Cambridge, MA 02139, Gehry Partners 2004


What hasn’t been said about Frank’s lab building at MIT that set out to change the mindset about lab buildings? I won’t give Frank that much press except to say that as we moved from the subway Redline onto Main Street, the slight turn of the corner onto Vassar set up a chance for me to explain to my son that not all lab buildings need be the same – boxy, repetitive and not memorable. Just because there is “thinking” going on inside of how to solve the world’s problems through science, doesn’t necessitate the endless and insipid rows of 7 to 10 story buildings devoted to deep science. This unusual sculptural wrought with drama does cause one to lift their eyes and think for a moment. My wife keenly noticed the poignant memorial sculpture that quietly sits beneath this building. Perhaps that deserves more press.

As usual the outside is unnecessarily complicated with technical nightmares and stands with hubris, it does interrogate the neighborhood by challenging it’s surrounding friends and most certainly the building across the street (Brain and Cognitive Sciences Building (2006) Charles Correa and Goody, Clancy and Associates). My son and I role played the possible conversations that scientists who work across the street from one another might share as they look out the windows at each other. You can fill in the blanks. The interiors are typical F.O.G. – spatially quirky with cheap materials. Many of the interior architectural moves are inside jokes whose punch lines are missed by everyone but architects. The exterior is showing its age with signs of the weather being unkind.

notice the Sean Collier Memorial along the base

Simmons Hall
, MIT, 229 Vassar Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Steven Holl and Associates (and Perry Dean Rogers) 2002


As we eyed up Mr. Holl’s dorm from almost a mile away from Stata, we trekked down Vassar street, returning to the banality with brief interruptions of mild interest. I’m hopeful that the new student residence under construction on Vassar Street by Michael Maltzan Architecture will begin to remedy this. Nonetheless, I felt this was a worthy walk to see a building in person that is hard to understand in photographs. Sure, I’m a Steven Holl fan, so I may invest the time to consider this one, but this sponge planted at the far reaches of campus is far more cerebral than a obvious relentless grid with a few seemingly random apertures.


True, dorm buildings are not open to strangers during the summer, so perhaps scheduling a tour may have been a bright idea. Therefore, experiencing the unusual amorphic interior student lounges didn’t happen for us. I took a bit more time to unravel this one, but with my architectural background and years teaching, several important aspects became readily apparent (perhaps I cheated). My photos are not likely convincing enough to back up my explanations, but perhaps that will entice you to revisit it.

The voids along Vassar Street begin to communicate with the street. There is one large opening filled with concrete risers and stairs that permit students to sit and just be, but it appears like it sets up an auditorium where students can sit and watch athletic activities directly across the street. The siting isn’t perfect, but that’s my theory. This is a place to look out.


Further up the street is another break in the relentless grid that appeared to be a cafeteria. The floor level is oddly below the sidewalk level and the sidewalk is depressed along the storefront with a canopy perched above This permits students to sit around the perimeter and look in or participate with those dining inside while making a subtle break from the realm of the public sidewalk.


Despite the obvious grid gesture of reinforced concrete structure, the skin begins to talk more about surface than volume. The outer skin of aluminum puzzled me, and it took a later sketch with photographs to see a subtle pattern of “L’s” that alternate consistently along the façade.

simmons sketch.jpgThe “cuts” are clad with perforated panels and the window jambs are full color that acknowledge the oblique nature that we experience architecture compared to the overly worked elevations that we are all prone to struggle to resolve. Up close its fussiness worried me that it will not weather well; it’s already apparent that this one is needy in terms of maintenance.


20180714_143501.jpgFilled with controversy and connected to a large price tag, I found an odd appreciation of the thought at many levels in this structure. As opposed to Stata that struck me as a haughty singular gesture, this one begged to be reconsidered – hopefully by the students who live within regulated by their own form of student government.



Kresge Auditorium, MIT, 48 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA. Eero Saarinen,1955


I suppose I should have scheduled a visit to both of Saarinen’s wonders at a different time of day as my tired and weary family arrived on this part of campus at a time we needed refreshment. Our time was short, but it was a moment I will to continue to ponder. This massive concrete shell so elegantly touches the ground on only three points which opens a conversation that would require a pot of coffee and a full afternoon in the least. This combined with the chapel needs more time to show it the proper respect.


MIT Chapel
, 48 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 1955, Eero Saarinen 1955


After an earlier meal of Gehry, Corbu and Holl, this gem was a refreshing and light feast to experience, yet not lacking in-depth or thought. Unfortunately, the green space between it and it’s sibling auditorium needed repair. The pure geometry was easily understood yet sits confidently along the flat plane of this end of campus. Not surprisingly, a wedding was underway (the bridal party was being photographed outside), so the inside was off-limits to the public. Although both buildings can be perceived as objects, they sat at a perfect distance from one another to create an appropriate public space between them that gets some help from the Stratton Student Center (Eduardo F. Catalano 1968) to the North.

how else does one enter a cylinder within a pool of water?

After this fast survey of largely Cambridge University architecture, we jumped back on the subway, caught an ice cream at a great parlor in Beacon Hill and took a rest in our hotel before an evening out. It might be that this moment was the most “Boston” of our trip as we sat on the window sill among anonymous Boston walk-ups, but it was a relaxing moment to take in the culture of this city.




We ended our trip with a relaxing seafood dinner and took in a worthy touristy view of the city. That’s a big bite to digest in less than 48 hours.







I found the city wicked smaaht. Cheers Boston, we’ll be back.

boston uncommon

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