ruminations about architecture and design

Friday, January 3, 2014

critique of robert campbell's critique of menino

Before I get into my long winded screed against the front page article by Robert Campbell in yesterday's Globe I need to set out some things I don't know: I don't know exactly what impact Mayor Menino had on development patterns in Boston over the past twenty years. His administration existed during a period of national prosperity but increasing inequality and the current makeup of the city is evidence of that. From what I read in the papers over the years I got the impression that he had a motivation to make things happen--even if it was a bit rough at times. I don't know how different things would have turned out if the city had had a different type of mayor--would there have been more development or less?

Robert Campbell implies that there would have been less development, and he teases us with the notion that had more deliberate methods been employed in the permitting and design process then the city would have ended up with "better architecture." He also states that the planning of the future of the city should have been entrusted to a more diverse group of people (i.e. more intellectuals). He claims that Menino was not a visionary and that Boston did not get "great architecture" under his tenure. By way of comparison, he cites recent project in New York City, and the memorable architecture of the past--specifically Boston City Hall, The Christian Science Center, and the Hancock Tower. I suppose my view of the great architecture of the city does not include all of those structures, but then, I am old-fashioned and probably not enough of an "expert" to be included in the planning process.

Campbell sets up conditions of idealism that could not have been realized by the city that Menino was a part of. The for-profit developers who put up buildings like the one pictured above had to answer to the forces of the market. They were not in a position to create civic monuments like the property next door, nor could the afford their architects the time to meet the nebulous standards of some design priesthood. Menino, for all his lack of "vision" recognized this reality, and he also recognized that investment dollars would flow to parts unknown if he did not do what was within his power to streamline certain projects.

More fundamentally, the ability of a city to plan its future is limited and deeply flawed. Although business school aphorisms like "fail to plan, plan to fail" sound convincing, the complex, evolutionary reality of the urban condition cannot be understood by the individual or the group. We all muddle along, and seizing on some "great idea" to inform the next fifty years of existence for something like a city is complete act of hubris. Because architects, urban planners, and art critics possess this hubris we are the last people who should be left to contemplate some unknowable future state.

Menino recognized that Boston is not New York City. Nor is it Dubai. His administration made an effort to get things done. Other people just write about things that could get done.

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