Skip to Content

4 If by Sea

Architecture responds to the lure of Boston’s coastline.

As recently as 1988, Boston Harbor was so filthy that George H.W. Bush used footage of its bobbing trash in an ad attacking his opponent for the presidency, Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. Fair or not, the ad focused the nation’s attention on an environmental disaster that had festered far too long. Today, a survey of buildings on Boston’s waterfront suggests that the pollution affected more than just water quality — it helped shape the city’s architectural heritage.

From the Puritan age until a few years ago, Boston dumped sewage and industrial waste blithely into its harbor. In 1876, the city’s first sewer system won a design award for pumping raw sewage out to sea with the outgoing tide; the problem was the incoming tide, which brought much of it back. Sewage treatment began in 1952. In the 1970s, when the US government mandated additional treatment for sewage in federal waters, Boston punted. Lawsuits were filed in the 1980s; and since then, with investments that include a new treatment plant at Deer Island, the water has finally come clean. In response, the city’s architecture has followed its people in gradually turning its gaze toward the harbor.


A vintage jewel of maritime building is Lewis Wharf (c. 1838), designed by Richard Bond of granite, brick, and timber. Spanning the footprints of three ruined wharves including John Hancock’s — which, in turn, once housed Paul Revere’s silver shop — Lewis Wharf was a node of international trade and clipper shipping. After the Civil War, when trading and fishing waned, Boston’s wharves were gradually neglected.

Suburban Modernist Carl Koch bought Lewis Wharf in 1965 and opened it in 1973 as a condominium and office complex. Known for his panelized family homes, all stained wood and natural light, Koch designed urban flats that celebrate the wharf’s original bricks and beams. Some have water-view balconies. “Redesigning Lewis Wharf became the most important project in my architectural career,” said Koch in 1992. “I never got over the romance of that building … in spite of all the difficulties.” Development had its risks: “That was one of the earliest adaptive-reuse projects in the city,” said Keith Morgan, professor of American and European architecture at Boston University. “Many of those wharf buildings were white elephants. Koch’s taking it on was sort of a brave act in those days.” Koch also had a little-known weakness for mansard roofs and sculpted one here to add two floors to the original four.

There is nothing light or airy about this rough-hewn behemoth, but today, surrounded by boat slips and gelato shops, Lewis Wharf supports a light and airy lifestyle. And in the waters beyond the building’s end, like lines on a faded map, are the stumps of wood pilings from storerooms that didn’t quite make it.

The first architectural attempt to bring people to the waterfront for pleasure was the New England Aquarium (1969), the first commission for Cambridge Seven Associates. “When it all began,” said Peter Chermayeff, principal-in-charge, “there was very little understanding of the waterfront.” But an inspired collaboration between the Chamber of Commerce and the Boston Redevelopment Authority asked designers to envision a shoreline with mixed-use and public access, including a harborside walkway. “The city was coming alive with concerns for architecture and planning,” said Chermayeff, and the aquarium was designed as a fulcrum of the reclamation process — even if he had to talk the client out of fears that a walkway would invite liability suits.

The building’s formal connection to water is inside-out: Its cool, square, mostly blank concrete box conceals giant tanks full of life. Chermayeff said he was “somewhat guilty” of guiding the firm’s most critical decision: making “the outer shell quite reticent, not an expressive, individualistic building [but] contextual — almost in the sense of a new warehouse, adding to the quite wonderful vocabulary of warehouse buildings all over the waterfront.” Focusing on the interior, Cambridge Seven designed a “magic box” that would “take people out of the reality of the city into the fantasy of being in the sea.” The closed façade was a planner’s tease, pulling people east to peer within.

When it was time to add on, “new things were happening that were beginning to transform the waterfront vocabulary or context,” Chermayeff said. “And so our new forms were exploding from the box and becoming a bit more transparent.” The 2013 renovations, designed by Cambridge Seven and McManus Architects, continue that process by extending a translucent canopy toward the water’s edge.

Down at Columbia Point, next to the University of Massachusetts/Boston, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum (1979) took its waterfront site as a consolation prize. In 1964, the Kennedys chose I.M. Pei & Associates to design the complex at Harvard, on the Charles River just west of Boylston Street (now JFK Street). Ten years later, the project was mired in local opposition and the architects in a red-brick redesign. Devastated, the Kennedys repaired to UMass/Boston to retain some gravitas and add some salt air.

The initial plan on Columbia Point, said Ted Musho, Pei’s associate partner on the project, was to make the building visible from the highway, an approach that might compensate for the loss of Harvard’s sycamore allées. But when Pei tried to refine a site surrounded by water, said Musho, “it became very evident that when the tide goes down, all you’ve got is muck.” Seeing one last alternative, Pei and Musho drove the Kennedys to the current site, where a sewage pipe gave way to a dump strewn with “elevators, rubber tires, you name it.” As they strolled through the rubble with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, “up flies a pheasant out of the garbage, and that was taken as an omen,” said Musho. He also had an ace up his sleeve: Under certain conditions, you could see the old Boston Light on Little Brewster Island. “All of the sailors in the crowd recognized the Boston lighthouse,” he said. “They set up a sextant to look out and see exactly what the angle was, and there was great elation.” Poetry saved the project.

Pei’s square, space-framed tower became a windswept cathedral, its glass ceiling reaching toward “the canopy of space into which [Kennedy] launched us,” Pei wrote. Outdoors, set against cost-cutting white concrete, the black tint of the glass strikes a harsh note; but indoors, it mutes the warm sun gently, whispering at once of the death of a young president and the loss of a great memorial.

The building now at the harbor’s literal and cultural edge is Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Art (2006), on Fan Pier. The museum’s folded glass ribbon, cantilevered out to the shoreline, is in such intimate dialogue with the water that the interfaces are artworks themselves. Throughout the interiors, the view of the water is curated, culminating in the frameless glass wall of the fourth-floor Founders’ Gallery, which all but dangles you off the tip of the cantilever.

“The waterfront is beautiful and dramatic and at odds with the mission of a museum, which is about looking inward and having a one-to-one relationship with art,” said Charles Renfro. “Views and the drama of the site could actually prove distracting, and so it was literally the water itself that became the challenge: how to make the building be civic and dramatic and bold … but also be a great place to see art.” Woven tightly into the HarborWalk, the museum invites passersby to roost in its womblike grandstand of Santa Maria hardwood.

In the century between the whip of clippers’ sails and the raising of these modern landmarks, Bostonians and their toxic harbor mostly avoided each other. The aquarium and the refurbished Lewis Wharf began the shift from industrial to recreational use, and the JFK Library and ICA moved, with swaths of glass, to open jubilation. The people keep coming, and future coastal buildings will add both concepts and context.