The Emperor's New Clothes

Posted by Michael DiMella on Tue, Mar 22, 2011

[This is a guest post by iconoclastic developer and marketer, Merrill H. Diamond.  Merrill can be reached at mdiamond@diamondsinacori.com. Read his bio below.]


Having recently touted the first-class architecture of 45 Province, among other aspects of this extraordinary property, and the Marino Center at Northeastern, I’d like to turn my attention to the state of contemporary architecture, in general.

As an architect-turned-developer, I attended architectural school at a time when it was transitioning from the tail end of formal Beaux Arts training to the advent of Bauhaus, New Brutalism and other contemporary design ideologies that have continued to dominate the design of contemporary building design.  With that statement, I am dismissing the work of Frank Gehry which is, at best, a series of tours de force signature buildings, but not a real architectural movement.  Frankly, it’s more fashion than architecture, the latter of which must function in the real world, not in an isolated context as is the case with Gehry’s celebrated Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.  A better example of Gehry’s failings is represented by the Strata Center at MIT, a building that is different for the sake of being different and hardly fits in within its context.  I’d hate to live across the street from it, and the photo below is its best view.

Stata Center by Frank GehryRay and Maria Stata Center by Architect Frank Gehry at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge

And there lies the crux of this blog post; having learned that “Form follows Function,” most architects design buildings from the inside out, hoping to “decorate” the result in an arbitrary pastiche of “sensitively” placed windows, vertical and horizontal expansion joints, the least expensive of trendy materials that can adequate cover a building…and the hallmark of contemporary architecture, the appellation that the building, although not much to look at, is “green.” 

As a developer who now works with architects for my projects, I fully understand that architects don’t get to make the real decisions that impact a building’s design; in the final analysis, the developer’s budget and the ultimate role of the building in the marketplace maintain first dibs…and usually the only dibs.  That, in a nutshell, is why I respect The Abbey Group for insisting that their architect for 45 Province design something that, while contemporary, is as pleasant to look from as it is pleasant to look at.  Unfortunately, that’s the exception, not the rule.

Truth be told, like Prince Charles and other architectural reactionaries, I look back on a time when proportion reigned supreme, when The Golden Triangle dictated these proportions and the results reflected it, when even background buildings (compare an inexpensive background building of 150 years ago to one designed and constructed today) adhered to certain generally accepted rules and standards.  Can you imagine something as large and as beautiful as Back Bay – an example of block after block of the work of 19th century architects exercising their individual creativity within the framework of an overall vision and adhering to limitations on height, materials, standards of proportion, and the use of beautiful materials -- being designed and constructed today?  When one of these buildings tragically burns down, it’s often something like the stark white Knoll Furniture Building (now something else) that people rationalize as a good fit in an infill environment.  It’s not…and it’s also not impossible to design something that doesn’t draw attention to itself at the expense of its more humble and modest neighbors.

I also take issue with the new Boston Food Bank building whose mission is noble, but whose building is essentially a stark gray box on which the architect decided to enliven it by covering it with strange metal tabs that, when viewed from a certain direction, attempt to form a shaft of wheat.  To me, it’s another example of an idea too cute by half…and I think that a similar building designed and constructed in another era, even if it was a brick warehouse that typified the “big box” commercial architecture of the 18th and 19th century, would have been preferable.  Many of these brick warehouses have mercifully been preserved and, in may cases a century or more later, have new lives as residences, retail, office space, etc.  Any thoughts as to the next use of the Boston Food Bank Building?  Nope, it will likely be a tear-down at some point in the not too distant future…but for now, it’s just another example of The Emperor’s New Clothes, a building that is essentially ugly, but exemplifies that people care less and less about the built-environment.  Again, would you want to live across the street from it?

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, we will soon be developing a new condominium building at 1501 Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton called Charing Cross.  Why Charing Cross (aside from the fact that I’m a Churchill freak and it’s a nice name to say?).  I’ll explain later, but it’s partially because I rode up and down that stretch of Commonwealth Avenue and had an epiphany: There hasn’t been a new building constructed from the intersection of Commonwealth and Brighton Ave all the way to Chestnut Hill Avenue in the past 75 years or so that anyone can claim is even close to a visual delight.  Sure, there are contemporary buildings there, but they all serve to demonstrate the “sensitive” placement of windows, etc. on a banal contemporary box.  The best architecture along this important ribbon of concrete are those that were designed at a time when people, as noted architectural critic, Robert Campbell, of The Globe put it,” cared about what things look like.”

Charing Cross is intended to break with this unfortunate new paradigm and is designed in the English Jacobean style (There it is; the other reason why the building has the appellation Charing Cross.  It recalls an important area of London and, in doing so, it pays homage to my hero, Winston Churchill).  The charge to our architect, Steve Tise of Tise Design Associates, was to design a building that would look like something that actually could have been constructed at the same time as the many other Jacobean buildings that create the best of the architectural fabric of this part of Commonwealth Avenue.  Steve, an extremely talented architect, agreed to do it, albeit kicking and screaming all the way and referring to it as “Snow-Globe architecture” (shades of Tom Kinkaid, Painter of Light).  However, I guarantee that Charing Cross will be as wonderful to look at as it is to look out from – largely because of its skyline views of downtown Boston to one side and it’s forever pastoral views to the other.  It will fit in seamlessly with its host community while not calling attention to itself as anything but a beautiful building.

Charing Cross, Brighton condo developmentCharing Cross
New Condo Development in Brighton at
1501 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA

One last comment: I understand contemporary budget constraints and the lack of affordable craftsmanship which typify contemporary architecture.  I understand that there are many situations in which both the developer and the architect are constrained by the former and that the alternative to designing a beautiful building is to not construct the building at all.  Finally, I understand that the latter is not a viable alternative if our economy is going to grow and people are to prosper.  All I’m suggesting is that we openly acknowledge rampant ugliness instead of making believe that the truly mundane is something beautiful and that The Emperor is, indeed, wearing nice clothes. 

In reality, more often than not, The Emperor is stark naked.

 

 

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merrill diamondMerrill H. Diamond is a trained architect and founding partner of Diamond/Sinacori, a Boston-based real estate development company founded in 1978.   He is currently working on the creation of a new multi-family marketing firm, IGNITION Residential, to be launched soon.

Mr. Diamond has been the recipient of numerous local and national awards for both development and marketing.  He has served as both a gubernatorial appointee to the Massachusetts Historical Commission and to the Senate Special Commission on Historic Preservation.  In addition, Mr. Diamond has been named “Entrepreneur of the Year” by Arthur Young / “Venture Magazine;” “Merchant Builder of the Year” by the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), and one of “America’s Most Valuable People” by “USA Today".

Mr. Diamond recently completed The Waterworks at Chestnut Hill, a 112 unit luxury condominium development, co-developed with the late EA Fish. He is currently developing The Shops at OCEAN'S GATE, a 40,000 sf retail center in Marshfield and Charing Cross, a 57 unit condominium builiding in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston.
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Tags: architecture, Boston real estate, Boston condos, multi-family marketing, brighton condos, Charing Cross