Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Government Service Center in Boston by Brutalist architect Paul Rudolph. (Photo: Gunnar Klack via Flickr)

There are two popular books about how terrible modern architecture and modern planning are. The best known is Tom Wolfe’s “From Bauhaus to Our House”; a lesser-known book by Peter Blake is “Form Follows Fiasco: Why Modern Architecture Hasn’t Worked.” Blake was head of what was then the The Boston Architecture Center and is now the Boston Architectural College. He had also been the editor of Architectural Forum and the short-lived Architecture Plus. And, as he points out in his book, he was actually an architect, a distinction he shares with The Boston Globe’s architecture critic, Robert Campbell.

At a time most Bostonians are either befuddled or enraged by the development they see and experience, it is worthwhile to review some of the dissenting and cautionary literature.

Blake begins with a description of the Yale School of Architecture. The building was designed by Paul Rudolph, and represented a high-water mark of modern design and the ideal of universities as enlightened patrons of architecture and design. Blake describes the brilliance of Rudolph’s design – and the subsequent effort by Yale students to burn down the Brutalist building, which, being made largely of concrete, did not burn very well. Rudolph also designed the never completed and never loved Government Service Center in Boston as part of the Government Center renewal project, and the equally unloved University of Massachusetts campus at Dartmouth, which for many years was called SMU, for Southeastern Massachusetts University, and evoked a Texas university with better running backs. A final irony of Yale’s School of Architecture is that the exposed asbestos used throughout the structure may have had long-term health consequences for all who worked in the building, as Yale discovered in 1974.

A model of the Plan Voisin for Paris, part of Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” concept, displayed in 1925. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Blake’s book deals with planning as much as architecture and design, and spends a great deal of time describing efforts by governments to create The Radiant City imagined by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Corbu, as his acolytes speak of him, had renamed himself – like a Mexican wrestler, or The Silver Surfer, or other intellectuals of his era. He designed Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and perhaps should be given credit for having invented the skateboard park with his sinuous ramp that curls up from Quincy Street through the building and down to Prescott Street.

Blake spends a great deal of time dealing with high-rise schemes to realize Corbusier’s Radiant City – a Ville Radieuse that looks a lot like the movie “Blade Runner” or a much more intense version of Rindge Towers. He also describes high-density, low-rise styles of development that might be more appropriate to Cambridge, which is one of America’s most densely populated cities despite having a small number of taller buildings.

Blake describes many examples, including St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe development, Co-Op City in The Bronx and developments in Trento, Italy; Split, Croatia; and Munich – and Boston’s own Charles River Park.

In the end Blake rallies for a more humane design, quoting the economist and futurist E.F. Schumacher (who made famous the phrase “Small is beautiful”). Blake suggests that we need an architecture, as Schumacher might have put it, “as if people mattered.”

“And an architecture as if the real world mattered,” Blake continues. “The real world’s hardware, the real world’s true resources (human as well as material), the real world’s aspirations.”