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Constructs and Contexts:

Reinterpreting Institutional Architecture’s Relationship With the City

Cyrus Dahmubed February 16th, 2016 ARCH 2340-02: Architecture, Modernity, and the City: 1910-1980 Prof. Xavier Costa


Fig. 1: Clockwise from center, 111 Huntington Tower, The Administration Building, Reflecting Pool, Original Mother Church, Colonnade Building, Prudential Tower

Similar to the way in which residential architecture served as a testing ground for early Modernism’s radical architectural manifestos, urban institutional projects of the later 20th-century often served as opportunities for architects to bring to fruition their grandest dreams of civic-scaled design. In the post-War era of urban renewal and the Federal Housing Authority, institutional architecture flourished as cities attempted to reinvigorate their urban cores and facilitated the freeing of land then believed necessary to do so. Two projects on Boston’s Huntington Avenue, also known as the city’s Avenue of the Arts, share many similarities on paper, yet are individually singular in their conceptual and design approaches. The Christian Science Center and West Wing addition to the Museum of Fine Arts were both designed by I.M. Pei & Partners within a decade of each other, and are not only on the same thoroughfare, but are separated by only a few city blocks. Nevertheless, their scales, implicit opinions of the city and the role of civic architecture, and stylistic language reflect vastly differing perspectives that result from both the ideals held by the two projects’ lead designers and the missions and programs of the institutions represented. The results, ultimately, are an expansion of the Christian Science Center into the public realm that opened the existing buildings onto the city contrasted with an addition at the Museum of Fine Arts that seeks to internalize the city, thereby making a city of the building itself.

Fig. 2: I.M. Pei & Partners’ original Christian Science Center Masterplan. Source: http://www.pcf-p.com/a/p/6522/2.html

Completed in 1973 under lead designer Araldo A. Cossutta, the expansion of The First Church of Christ, Scientist transformed the complex from two grand, though somewhat hidden buildings into a celebrated, sweeping, and unmistakably urban campus known as the Christian Science Center. (Fig. 1) The massive undertaking created a complex that employs a distinctly modern use of béton brut while simultaneously managing scale, proportion, rhythm, massing, and urban agenda in a recognizably Neoclassical, arguably City Beautiful, manner that is conscious of the architecture of its institution’s most prized structure: The Mother Church itself. The broadreaching urban master plan envisioned not only the creation of a 14.5 acre campus, conceivable in some senses as Christian Science’s “Vatican in Boston”, but also provided for the demolition and reconstruction of the immediately surrounding houses and streets. (Fig. 2) This process would re-contextualize the Center within the city by casting it as the core of an architecturally cohesive immediate surrounding that occupies a triangular area of the city created by the merging of different street grids and the nearby superblock of the recently completed Prudential Center complex. Prior to Cossutta’s expansion, the Christian Science complex was composed of the original, Romanesque church building of 1894, its considerable Neoclassical addition of 1904-06, and the Christian Science Publishing House of 1934. Cossutta’s additions Dahmubed 1


to the complex included the construction of a number of new buildings and spaces, as well as the demolition of much of the surrounding urban fabric in order to create monumentally scaled spaces, commensurate with his architectural contributions. These contributions include the Sunday School building, an 1,100 seat auditorium for the Church’s educational ministries, the Colonnade Building, which housed a collection of the Church’s ministerial offices, and the 26-story Administration Building, which housed the Church’s administrative offices until it was converted into leasable office space in 2008. At the center of the complex is the 670-by-100 foot Reflecting Pool, featuring a design that permits water to continuously slip over its edges creating both a visual and auditory spiritual experience. At the northeast end of the Pool’s long axis a circular fountain embedded into the ground sprays water in playful and unpredictable patterns, creating a cooling respite from the city’s summer heat and the complex’s exposed plaza. (Fig. 3) Cossutta’s three buildings are all organized parallel to the Reflecting Pool’s axes, with the Sunday School opposite the fountain, the tower of the Administration Building immediately south of the fountain along Huntington Avenue, and the low, repetitive mass of the Colonnade Building lining the complex’s northern edge and creating a bridge to the original Publishing House. Each building in the Christian Science Center is a monolith of poured-in-place concrete. Seemingly extruded and carved from the surrounding plaza, they each strongly assert their position in Boston’s impressive canon of Brutalist architecture. While the architecture of each is worth note, it is largely subservient to the complex’s urban design. The centrality of the Reflecting Pool is a masterful achievement of monumentality expressed in an exquisitely minimalist manner, and while the positioning of the buildings around the Pool is hardly symmetrical, their strong adherence to the Pool’s axes creates monumentality through balance resulting in a spatial quality reminiscent of the grandest master plans of the City Beautiful movement. This balance is achieved through the juxtaposition of the height of the Administration Building with the lengthy flatness of the Colonnade Building, and the shared contrast of their rectilinear strength with the graceful curve of the Sunday School building. With the Romanesque and Neoclassical facades of The Mother Church also facing onto the Pool, a certain sense of the picaresque is achieved; the complex seems simultaneously exquisitely 2 Dahmubed

Fig. 3: The Colonnade Building at left, with the fountain in the foreground and dome of The Mother Church in the background.

planned and ineffably organic. This balance through formal play is no small achievement considering that despite their relatively simplicity, each building holds its own architectural strength in the shadow of the grandiose domes, pediments, apses, and balustrades of The Mother Church. An oft-overlooked element of the project involved reinterpreting The Mother Church’s relationship to the city by demolishing a street of row houses that separated it from one of the city’s major boulevards, the nearby Massachusetts Avenue. This move, in addition to the clearings necessary for the construction of the plaza and surrounding buildings, effectively released The Mother Church from its warren of dense streets in a manner similar to Baron Haussmann’s attempts to re-monumentalize Parisian landmarks through demolition of their surroundings. The creation of a new front door for The Mother Church, however, necessitated its reinterpretation and the construction of a monumental façade and entrance facing onto Massachusetts Avenue where there had previously been none. For this, I.M. Pei & Partners designed a grand new portico featuring ten massive Corinthian columns. This relatively small addition completed the complex’s reintroduction to the city and asserted its accessibility from the many large streets on which it now fronted.


Much like the construction of a new portico on The Mother Church, a variety of other individual architectural choices help to lend cohesion to the complex while also creating unique pieces of architecture. Cossutta’s work displays an engagingly mixed reliance on the purity of simple geometric forms common to early Modernism with the almost whimsical integration of unregimented curved forms endemic of late Modernism and quotations from Classicism in the buildings’ proportions and arched entrances. The Colonnade Building is perhaps the best example of this mixing of styles, with both references to the late work of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. At the urban scale, the axiality of the Christian Science Center and its central water features seem to rely heavily on Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute for approval following Modernism’s prolonged shunning of centrality and symmetry as a means of achieving monumentality. This precedent, however, is made much more explicit through the repetitive, angled walls that give the Colonnade Building its name. A clear conceptual difference exists between the Salk Institute and its antecedent, however. While Kahn’s angled walls serve to provide exquisite ocean views to prioritized rooms within the complex, Cossutta’s effectively open the Church’s offices to the city and allow the city into the building. Each angled wall is punctured with a narrow archway to further establish this effect by serving as a symbolic representation of the concept of an entrance – perhaps an early indication of the influence of what would come to be known as Postmodernism. It is as though the individual wall modules of an otherwise opaque and uninviting building have been sliced and pivoted to permit access to a protected, completely public portico. This welcoming gesture to the public is a synecdochical representation of the project’s underlying concept of opening the Church to the city and creating an inclusive public space that interacts with its surroundings rather than shies away from them. Another significant precedent for the Colonnade Building that arguably borders on replication is Le Corbusier’s Legislative Assembly Building at Chandigarh. This governmental building also features an expressively curved parapet supported by a series of thin concrete walls. However, the faceting of the curve atop the Colonnade Building brings it into relation with the highly expressed service cores of the Administration Building. The reference to Chandigarh, therefore, seems a bit obtuse unless one considers that the success of Le Corbusier’s masterplan for Chandigarh’s government buildings is predicated on the idea of balanced asymmetry. Through this recognition, the Colonnade Building’s curved parapet comes into focus as a courteous, appreciative quotation of an organizing urban concept, rather than a misplaced reproduction. While less referential than the Colonnade Building, both the Administration Building and Sunday School employ clever and beautiful design tactics. One of the Colonnade Building’s most distinctive features are two faceted, semi-circular service cores on its short edges. (Fig. 4) These permit the building’s floors to be entirely unobstructed, receiving light from the entirety of the building’s other two facades. This light is dramatically filtered through a highly articulated brise

Fig. 4: The Administration Building and fountain. The tower’s service course and articulated facade are clear.

Fig. 5: Detail of the Adminstration Building’s deepset facade and brise soleil.

Fig. 6: The graceful cantilever and curve of the Sunday School.

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soleil structure that covers the building like a second skin, both expressing a key touchstone of Modernism and poetically granting the building a graceful detail through a heavy and brashly exposed architectural gesture. (Fig. 5) At the far southwestern corner of the campus, the Sunday School is the most visually distinctive piece of architecture in a complex of structures with strong personalities. (Fig. 6) Its dramatically cantilevered and curved façade is the direct expression of the 1,100 seat auditorium within. Rather than being simply sculptural or formal, this curved massing serves as a welcoming invitation into the plaza. Had the Sunday School been designed as a pure rectangle, effectively closing off one side and corner of the plaza to the public, the relationship of the entire complex would have become quite literally self-centered and internalized. Rather, its gentle sweep opens a door to the space from Massachusetts Avenue between the Sunday School and The Mother Church. The curved façade also acts as an invitation to The Mother Church itself, whose newly reconfigured entrance would have Fig. 7: The barrel vaulted passageway of the West Wing addition, seen from the second floor. otherwise appeared disconnected from and incongruous with the complex as a whole. A final poetic detail of the Christian Science Center’s architecture is Cossutta’s decision to allow the brick plaza to continue uninterrupted into the Sunday School and Administration Building as their floor treatment, thereby allowing the public realm to permeate these two buildings’ weighty yet ephemeral facades. Starkly contrasting both the conceptual approach and visual experience of the Christian Science Center, is I.M. Pei’s West Wing Addition to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Completed in 1981, the design is decidedly selfcentered, creating layers of experiential and physical opacity to push the city away from it. The addition connected the two western ends of the museum’s south and north wings, completed in 1909 and 1915 respectively. The addition created a continuous circuit of circulation within the museum that allows visitors to explore the collections without having to retrace their steps at ends of the major wings. Programmatically, the West Wing addition includes a café and bookstore, restaurant, 400-seat theater, education and seminar space, and considerable new gallery areas. The primary design element is a double-height space running the length of the addition beneath a glass barrel vault. This space is unique in that its programming and form essentially turn it into an internalized city street. The theater, café, and bookstore all empty into it, while at either end horizontal circulation allows access to the museum’s original galleries and vertical circulation takes visitors to an overlooking mezzanine that runs above the “street” below. The space is inarguably monumental, its vault treading the line as a Postmodernist billboard intended to read “monument”. However, its busy and cluttered detailing means that it must rely entirely on the grandeur of the luminous barrel vault to achieve this, without which it would be little more than a glorified hallway. (Fig. 7) At the urban scale, the West Wing addition is unabashedly anti-urban. As opposed to the Christian Science 4 Dahmubed


Fig. 8: The West Wing’s entrance featuring curved wall, relfective doors, concrete threshhold, and lone column.

Fig. 9: The interiorized courtyard with the projecting glass volume of the bookstore seen at far right.

Center, which sought to release The Mother Church from the bonds of a dense urban fabric, the West Wing is surrounded by an unpleasantly distancing warren of parking lots, loading facilities, and oddly placed hedges. Any external monumentality exists as a result of the monolithic nature of the wall of solid granite blocks that houses the wing’s entrance. The entrance itself is announced through four simple gestures whose aggregation creates a welcome respite from the starkness of the façade. A concrete slab interrupts the granite wall to announce the threshold, and recessed from it are a set of highly reflective glass doors, another small gesture seemingly intent on holding the city at bay. A single, massive column stands in the recession to further articulate the entryway. The most successful and seamless gesture, however, is one that seems borrowed from the Christian Science Center. As the concrete slab begins, the granite blocks begin to turn toward the doors, creating a curved wall that funnels visitors into the museum. (Fig. 8) Compared to the interior of the West Wing, the entry process seems under-designed, as though the museum was never really intended to be seen from this viewpoint. Perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy the West Wing’s entrance is now used almost exclusively for visiting student groups, meaning that most patrons never even seen its exterior. Regardless of the shortcomings of its exterior, the West Wing’s internal passage is one of the museum’s most distinguished and successful spaces,

simultaneously comfortable and grand. A mix of concrete and plaster walls identify different zones for circulation and exhibition, respectively. The curved wall of the entryway is also reinterpreted in glass to guide visitors into the bookstore – a crucial aspect of any museum’s circulatory process – wherein patrons discover a secret of the museum hidden away by the addition, further reinforcing the Wing’s introspective point of view. (Fig. 9) The Wing’s addition created a courtyard between it and the arms of the museum’s original wings. Inaccessible from the ground floor though the courtyard is – one must access it from a subterranean lunch area – the only digression from the building’s otherwise pure geometry allows a reading of the courtyard as a celebrated space. In the rear of the bookstore, a small projection extends over the courtyard and allows visitors into its space without having to go outside. This small gesture to the outdoors is a simple pleasure in a space otherwise so emphatic in its adoration of the central vaulted passage. The area of the passage immediately outside the bookstore is further monumentalized through the placement of four massive columns whose presence causes the visitor to momentarily question whether this is the extent of the original museum and only the vaulted space has been added. This playful layering further helps to internalize the experience of the space. Light is a fundamental consideration in the design of any art museum, and a design requirement Dahmubed 5


to which much of the building’s opacity can be contributed. Light is admitted into the addition almost exclusively from the glass vault, though windows overlooking the museum’s neighboring park, the Fens, are permitted in the second floor contemporary art galleries. While plays of light are at their best along the upper walls of the passage where louvers that line the vaults create particularly expressive shadows that reinforce the texture of the poured-inplace concrete, the southern circulation zone is also worthy of special attention. Here, a large semicircular is carved from the second floor to allow a grand stair to rise through it, creating a play of shadow, light, and texture that inhabits the full height of the space. A single concrete column lands eccentrically within the semicircle, supporting a tall concrete wall that implicitly delineates an entry zone to one of the original galleries from the circulatory zone, which is capped by a sloping skylight connected to a smaller, glass vaulted area. (Fig. 10) The West Wing appears to be in its most resolved state in this area, where the details that imply and complete each small space within the larger zone are fully considered. While the West Wing is home to specific galleries, most notably an expansive contemporary collection on the second floor, the central passage has evolved into its greatest gallery space. The vault itself has been inhabited by a work composed of floating human figures, while the walls feature rotating paintings, murals, and light exhibits. The space is notable in that it both provides for and begs to be programmed with unrelentingly sensational works of art. Because of the confusion created by the contradiction between its formal purity and busy details, the passage is both far too monumental to be treated simply as another gallery, and yet too cluttered to stand entirely on its own. Though this contradiction has been masterfully remedied through Fig. 10: The West Wing’s circulatory core, with single concrete pier placed eccentrically, and the work of clever curators, it belies the main vault of the passage beyond. an anxious nature to the building’s architecture that is, perhaps, the result of the project’s introspection: Pei attempted to concentrate too much into one area, failing to allow the building to participate more actively with its surroundings. Though both the Christian Science Center and Museum of Fine Arts’ West Wing addition are nearly neighboring urban projects, produced within the same decade, and by the same architecture office their approaches to the role of the institution within the city are in stark contradiction. While the Christian Science Center seeks to expand the influence of its institution from that of a few, closed buildings to that of a monumental civic space with aspirations for the future of the city, the West Wing addition further internalized the jewel box art museum to which it was added. The result is that one space has become an indispensible and much loved part of the city’s urban fabric, protected and coveted by city government and residents alike, while the other has largely fallen to the back of citizens’ minds, even during visits to 6 Dahmubed


the Museum of Fine Arts. Shared between these two projects, however, is the concept of re-contextualization. Both reinterpreted their surroundings to achieve new architectural paradigms, which may once again be in the process of transformation through architecture. A recent addition to the Museum of Fine Arts by Lord Norman Foster has largely overshadowed Pei’s contributions in the public eye, while a new tower is rising on the periphery of the Christian Science Center that, as the third tallest in the Boston, will quite literally overshadow the complex. Designed by Henry Cobb of Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners – Pei’s firm’s current incarnation – and conceived of as a means of financing the Christian Science Center’s preservation in perpetuity, only time will tell how these additions will reinterpret and re-contextualize the existing relationships of their home institutions to the city.

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Constructs and Contexts: Reinterpreting Institutional Architecture's Relationship With the City  

This analysis of two significant and proximal works by the office of Pei, Cobb, Freed examines different approaches to integration of monume...

Constructs and Contexts: Reinterpreting Institutional Architecture's Relationship With the City  

This analysis of two significant and proximal works by the office of Pei, Cobb, Freed examines different approaches to integration of monume...

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