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MATTER OF COURSE: Reimagining the Government Service Center

To many Bostonians, Paul Rudolph’s monumental and monolithic Government Service Center (GSC) is “that weird parking garage on Beacon Hill,” or “the concrete eyesore up the street from Mass General.” Occupying a curved-triangle block bounded by Cambridge, New Chardon, Merrimac, and Staniford streets in downtown Boston, the center has been a controversial site almost since the day it opened in 1971. A classic Brutalist redoubt, it was supposed to include a tubular, futuristic office tower, which was never funded by the state. 

Still home to the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center and the state’s Department of Unemployment Assistance, the GSC is now an urban disaster area. The tiered concrete plaza that Rudolph hoped would be an oasis for lunch-breaking bureaucrats is now cocooned in chain-link fencing and barbed wire intended to deter the city’s homeless from camping there. “It is an underutilized and sad corner of the city,” says Mark Pasnik, a founding principal of over,under and a professor of architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology — this from a man who likes the site. “I think these buildings are troubled but are also really interesting. They represent the heroic imagination of a previous generation, and they need care and transformation.” 

Pasnik and his Wentworth colleague Carol Burns, of Taylor & Burns Architects, devoted a semester to brainstorming alternative uses, or dynamic readaptations, of Rudolph’s aging GSC. In a course they labeled epic — externally-collaborative, project-based, interdisciplinary curricula — they invited interior designers from Wentworth, landscape architects from Northeastern University, and officials from the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management to meet with their class of 27 students to dream up new “programs” for the Service Center.

I attended Pasnik and Burns’s end-of-semester review, when student teams presented seven proposals for reworking the GSC to eight guest architects. The concepts varied widely. One team simply treated the site as a commercial development opportunity, breaking up the low, linked structure into four buildings with greater floor-to-area ratios that match the highrises now surrounding the site. Another tried to exploit the site for tourism, replacing the center’s parking garage with a Boston History Museum, surrounded by mixed-use towers of office space, residences, and a hotel.

The final four

 

Seven interdisciplinary groups of students from Wentworth Institute of Technology developed speculative proposals to transform the Government Service Center by increasing the site’s density, permeability, and its mix of uses. New proposed programs ranged from housing, hotels, and commercial functions to a school, ecology center, and history museum. The teams were led by faculty members Carol Burns and Mark Pasnik with support from the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), the state agency in charge of the building. Four initial studies are being further developed in the spring and fall of 2015 in conjunction with interior and industrial design students at Wentworth led by Peter Greenberg and Bill Bancroft.

MASTER PLAN 1
MASTER PLAN 1
MASTER PLAN 1
 
MASTER PLAN 2
MASTER PLAN 2
MASTER PLAN 2
 
MASTER PLAN 3
MASTER PLAN 3
MASTER PLAN 3
 
MASTER PLAN 4
MASTER PLAN 4
MASTER PLAN 4
 

Tagging along behind three of the feistier reviewers — David Eisen, Mark Klopfer, and Jim McNeely — I heard three of the seven presentations. As the project architect for the Lindemann center, McNeely was a rich addition to the critical mix. The original program for the mental health building “was written by a bunch of psychiatrists for whom money was no object,” he recalled. It had a swimming pool, a chapel, electrical and plumbing workshops for occupational therapy, coffee shops, and a theater. “They thought the state would cough up the money to maintain it, which it didn’t,” he said.

I found myself most involved in “Against Impenetrability,” a three-student initiative to open up the fortress-like structure to the outside world. “Right now, the public doesn’t know how to use the building or what’s inside it,” said team member Kaz Cunningham. Among the solutions proposed was to open up the building on its north-south axis, creating a hypothetical flow of pedestrians from North Station up and down Beacon Hill to government office buildings, to the medical centers, and to the Financial District. 

The trio showed an elegant rendering of the building’s north-facing “urban passageway” lifted onto slender pilotis, allowing a sightline from Merrimac Street straight up the hill to Cambridge Street. In an early sketch, the students built geodesic overlays onto Rudolph’s forbidding entrances, only a few of which remain in use. “What happened to those Buckminster Fuller entrances?” McNeely quizzed the students. “Easier to draw than to build?” 

Klopfer pointed out that one proposed passageway through the site blissfully ignored new construction that had sprung up since Rudolph’s time. “You come through here,” he said, pointing at a drawing, “but where do you end up? At the blank side of a Graham Gund building.” The students hadn’t integrated One Bowdoin Square, Gund’s low-rise that abuts the Rudolph site, into their plans.

Noting that a student had placed an uncovered hotel entrance away from the street, Klopfer noted a practical problem: “People get out of the cab from Logan, in the rain; they don’t want to walk to the hotel entrance,” he said. “It can’t be there.” I asked Greg Gibson, a student member of the “Impenetrability” team, what he thought of Rudolph’s Services Center after spending a whole semester working on it. “I like the building even though I know it’s unpopular,” he said. “It’s a byproduct of Rudolph’s ideas. He thinks on a higher level than most individuals, and it’s hard to appreciate that.”

You’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, I suggested. What about all that massed concrete? “Concrete has qualities that are pretty harsh,” Gibson replied. “But you have to accept that as a byproduct of this great work.”