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Looking Backward

Garnering neither the admiration of the Hancock tower nor the hatred of City Hall (its geographic and contemporary neighbors, respectively), Boston’s Prudential tower is perhaps a fitting image for an insurance company: solid, ever-present, uncontroversial.

According to architectural historian Elihu Rubin, author of Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape, the Pru marked a transformative moment in Boston’s history. This 1965 complex was a key piece in the transition from a downtown, rail-based economy to a regional, automobile-driven network; reflects the rise of corporate influence in city making; and represented a radical, conscious effort to invest in the urban center.

Boston in 1965 was a much different place than it is today. The city had suffered economically, as surrounding textile and manufacturing industries moved south, and many urban thinkers believed that the aging, dense, pedestrian-oriented 19th-century building fabric was obsolete.

With the 52-story Prudential building, city fathers sent a very different signal. And catalyzed by this investment and other projects like it, Boston successfully navigated the transition to a vibrant, postindustrial economy. Too many New England cities have not.

Large projects such as the Pru that played roles in that transition have rarely been loved. Yet a spate of recent exhibitions, newspaper coverage, and lectures suggest that Boston is ready to rethink its midcentury. There may be something in the zeitgeist, or at least a younger generation of architects and historians — who didn’t live through the destruction that the era also embraced — may be more open to appreciating its heroic aims and success.

The Prudential Center bears lessons in its architectural approach, as well, as the buildings at the base continue to evolve as the city around it changes. This ongoing recalibration is something that Boston City Hall has never been able to do.