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It's big, it's ugly - and how can we save it?

Posted by Simon Waxman  November 21, 2012 03:54 PM

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peabody cropped.jpg

There is no one structure that speaks, if you will, for Boston—no Big Ben, Space Needle, Empire State Building, or Eiffel Tower.

But perhaps surprisingly for such a historic city, Boston does have an impressive architectural legacy in the mid-century modernist realm—Harvard’s Peabody Terrace and Gund Hall, BU’s law school building, MIT’s Green Building and Stratton Student Center, the Charlesview Apartments by the Harvard Coliseum. Its greatest monument may also be its most controversial: the massive icon of 1960s brutalism known as Boston City Hall.

Mid-century modern architecture, especially the concrete variety, is dear to many a designer, but notably unloved by the public. It can also be hard on owners and occupants, who complain of drafty spaces, high heating costs and crumbling exteriors.

So what do you do with “a structure that’s disliked by its users and owners alike, yet may be judged to have historic value by preservationists or architects”? That’s the question raised in an ongoing series, Icon or Eyesore, at metropolismag.com.

In the series, a team of preservationist architects brought in to fix up the deteriorating BU law complex designed by one of their heroes, Josep Lluis Sert, quickly find that “charged with defending and restoring landmark buildings that we once only knew from a distance, we had to tone down our reverence.”

By doing away with the elaborate flourishes of earlier styles, which denoted wealth and prestige, the architects of 20th century concrete sought “to eliminate the ‘social evils’ of the past.” But “building science took a backseat to aesthetic considerations for most mid-century American architects. Fossil fuels were cheap. Comfort standards were more forgiving than they are today.”

The result is a collection of respected, movement-defining buildings the region could be proud of for generations to come—if only the insulation worked and they didn’t cost so much to keep around.

[Peabody terrace photo via Flickr user Madprime.]

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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