Friends, Robert Campbell once again dispensed timely wisdom from the Globe a few days ago. If you care about Boston’s built environment and real potential pitfalls in the current boom, take a peek. Campbell observes:
Let’s think about that by looking at two basic types of urban high-rises. I’ll call them the Diva and the Dagwood.
The Diva, self-centered, is a tower that ignores everything around it. It stands, or rather poses, like an opera star on an empty stage. A Diva is usually set back from the street, behind empty space in the form of a lawn or plaza. Developers often praise such a space as a gift to the pedestrian, but that’s hogwash. A plaza isn’t there for the people, it’s there to show off the Diva, or at best to fulfill some bureaucrat’s square-foot calculation of required open space.
No matter how elegantly they may be paved or planted, urban plazas are boring, windy, and little used, especially in weather like ours. The Prudential, back before its Arctic plazas were filled in with shopping arcades, was a good example. The Federal Reserve Bank, next to South Station, is another. It’s a handsome, eloquent Diva tower behind a plaza that has the charm of a recently abandoned battlefield.
As far as the public is concerned, cities aren’t made of buildings and plazas, anyway. Cities are made of streets and parks. From the point of view of urban design, the buildings are there to shape those public spaces and feed them with energy.
The critique goes back to Louis Sullivan in the early days of skyscrapers and a time when the problem was too much stylistic dressing on tall buildings, as opposed to too little. Broadly considered, the lesson for those of us who support smart development is that we should be careful about what we support and demand sensitivity to context in all things. Robert calls buildings that don’t do this “divas” to make non-technical folks get the point, but the better and more accurate term is “object buildings” – buildings that are willfully unconcerned with their surroundings, meant to be seen only in isolation like a piece of sculpture. In cities, such buildings are toxic. If they don’t kill their locations, they live off them parasitically. While we (hopefully!) are unlikely to see skyscrapers like those Campbell discusses here in Roslindale, the central thesis of his piece argues for careful infill that provides for step by step succession as to density and height as opposed to great leaps. We will have ill-served ourselves if we end up with a slew of “object” buildings in this wave. We would be better off sitting this out entirely.