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The Doorknob Census

Capturing the essence of the city

Boston appears to be heading into the biggest building boom since the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1872. There's prideful talk about soaring new towers to rival those of other cities. Why we'd want to rival other cities isn't so much discussed. Surely Boston's uniqueness, in a world that's ever declining into sameness, is part of its appeal.

GALLERY: Boston's Built World

In order to consider the city's architectural future, you have to have some kind of vision of what's Bostonian about Boston. And with new city leadership in place, it seems like an opportune moment. In a changing world, what characteristics of Boston should remain unchanged? Is there maybe some perfume—call it "Essence of Boston"—that we're unaware of because it's always been in the air? How do you preserve a quality you can't quite define?

You could begin by counting doorknobs.

I'm stealing that concept from the late Homer Russell. Homer, who died last fall, was for many years director of urban design at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). There he created a map of downtown Boston on which he placed a red dot to represent each doorknob you could see from the street.

As it turned out—no surprise, really—the best-loved neighborhoods were the ones with the most doorknobs. The doorknob count proved to be a measure of urban vitality. Doorknobs are a representation of human presence and human scale. They respond to the height of a human hand. And when there are a lot of them, they suggest, as do crowded sidewalks, the presence of a diverse citizenry.

Human scale and diversity of use are key ingredients in the essence of Boston. A city needs different kinds of people doing different things at different times of day.

Doorknobs are an example, too, of the architectural quality of intricacy. As you approach a building, if it is to remain interesting, you should be able to notice more and more detail as you get closer. The architecture in this sense is ever changing, ever adapting to your presence.

There are exceptions to every rule. The John Hancock tower is a great building without intricacy, except for the half-visible life you see through the glass or reflected in it. I can't help remembering, though, a friend who suggested that the architect should have sliced off the front 10 or so feet of a Dorchester triple-decker and glued it to the Hancock, thus creating the only appropriate entrance to a 60-story mirror.

Please, I'm not saying all new buildings should have traditional doorknobs. But I'd like to see us hang on to the qualities they embody.

Take the currently hottest district, the South Boston Waterfront (now saddled with a silly brand name, the Innovation District). There are not a lot of doorknobs here, unless you count car doors. And the area doesn't feel like Boston because it doesn't feel like a city. It looks and feels like a suburban office park. It's served by cars, which occupy roads that are too wide for pedestrian pleasure but which nevertheless choke with traffic at rush hour because everyone's residence is somewhere else. A city needs different kinds of people doing different things at different times of day. A lot of people opening and closing doors.

Not enough people in the Innovation District will be turning the handle of a residential door and walking out to enjoy the city for the evening. That should change.

Paris is a good example. In a typical building, there is maybe a restaurant on the ground floor that's busy in the evening. Above that, perhaps floors with offices of some kind, maybe a dentist or a dressmaker. Then, up at the top, a couple of floors of residential flats. A layer of residences thus floats above almost the whole city. People use the sidewalks at all hours.

Human scale and diversity of use are the first qualities I'd list as key ingredients in the essence of Boston. Not residences here and offices there and shopping somewhere else, but many kinds of activity mixed together in the same place. Zoning that forbids that kind of mix is a hangover from the smelly factories of the Victorian era. Newbury and Charles streets have long been models of use diversity. (Their success can backfire, of course, when rents go up and pricey boutiques replace useful services such as pharmacies and hardware stores. But that's another issue.)

What's less important is architectural style or material. Red brick is great on Beacon Hill and the South End, but Boston is also built of wood, granite, glass, stone, concrete, and other materials, all of which, when handled with respect for both the material and the urban context, can be wonderful.

The same is true of architectural style. There's no one right style for Boston. It's possible to create good (or bad) architecture in any manner, present, past, or future. Nobody is bothered by the fact that Andrea Palladio studied and imitated the architecture of ancient Rome. But he was inventive in the ways he adapted past styles to present circumstances, and that's the key to success. Maybe in an older city like ours, built during so many different eras, we should think of diversity itself as the Boston style.

A few more suggestions for Boston as it grows:

"Be wary of the novel, bold, sweeping vision, backed by large piles of money."

I'm quoting Homer Russell again. Cities, he thought, should be improved "one small incremental piece at a time." Even a fully planned neighborhood like the Back Bay—where not only the street layout but also the placement of bay windows was specified in advance—was built incrementally over time in various styles.

Honor historic preservation

not just for the aesthetic value of some of the older architecture but to preserve a presence for the past, to keep Boston a city that anchors us in time as well as in place and thus enriches our sense of who we are. The presence of time in the city is another part of Boston's essence. It's a defining paradox: the city preserves the past while it invents the future.

Make lots of parks, but be sure they're useful.

The most important public spaces in a city are the streets. Cities are made of streets, and streets are shaped by buildings. Parks are a wonderful bonus, when they have a reason to exist. When I see a single jogger on the Rose Kennedy Greenway I can't help wondering: What was the per capita cost of this piece of green? Much better would have been a string of small neighborhood parks interspersed with low-rise, mixed-use development.

Simplify the approval process.

Bad things happen when the process of getting approvals from the BRA and other agencies becomes too lengthy and onerous. One, the proposed building becomes more expensive, which may engender a cost-saving cut in quality. Two, the building's sponsors may look for ways to subvert the approval process. Maybe an official finds a way to stack the membership of a Citizens Advisory Committee so it will vote right. Three, too many jobs go to the same few architects, the ones who've proved they know the ropes and can handle the process. Less plugged-in architects, such as those from other cities, are less likely to get opportunities.

Give the kids a chance.

Find ways to get the bright young graduates of our five schools of architecture to stay in Boston by giving them better opportunities. I'd like to see many more design competitions. That's how architects break through. The design for the White House and for the Capitol were chosen by competition, as was that of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Quit praising the architectural style known as Brutalism

(for a while anyway; I know I've been guilty). Most people believe that only architects like these buildings, so they distrust architects and regard them as members of an elitist cult that's out of touch with the larger world. Avant-gardism may be OK for painting, but architecture needs a practical client who's willing to risk money. As Paul Klee put it, "An artist can paint square wheels, but an architect must make them round."

Realize that an architecture school is not the ideal place from which to overthrow the bourgeoisie.

Schools vary on this issue, and I'm not going to name names. But there are better places for expressing your political anger and superior taste. There's no need to feel you've lost face when you find that the general public actually admires your building.

If possible, don't milk development to fill the public coffers.

The problem is that Boston, like other American cities, can't be governed with only the money it gets from taxes and other public sources. In a city that's growing, the obvious way to restock the kitty is to milk the real estate world. Each new building proposal then becomes the subject of a deal. The city, let's say, approves a bigger building than zoning would allow. In return, the developer makes some kind of contribution to the city—for example, to a fund intended for affordable housing. You can call the process corrupt, as some do. But it may be the best system we have; other American cities, lacking this resource, are now flirting with bankruptcy. One wonders how much is likely to change, even with the new administration. Mayor Martin Walsh was quoted in The Boston Globe, back in December, as saying, "If we aren't developing in Boston, the programs that I want to push for probably won't happen."

Keep distinguishable neighborhoods.

They're another example of Boston's human scale. You're never lost in Boston, as you are in Phoenix, somewhere on an endless grid. Our neighborhoods are losing their distinct boundaries, both physical and ethnic, as Boston matures into a holistic city rather than a patchwork of contrasting neighborhoods. But you still usually can tell which one you're in. Get the Boston Society of Architects involved as an organization in the debate. Take positions.

Get people talking and thinking about architecture.

Several decades ago, the BSA took a stand against the proposed design of the Hancock tower. The BSA lost that battle, and most would now agree that the BSA was wrong. But in general, Boston architects are too timid about going public. Compare our caution with the fierce attacks on Prince Charles by architects in Britain. Why fear controversy? It's a tonic. ■