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“Boston and the Skyscraper” panel discussion

Let New York City, Hong Kong and Dubai show off their wealth with fantastic skyscrapers that define their future; Boston has got its noble past and a more thoughtful approach to building upwards. Or at least that’s what the city has been telling itself since 1915, when the Custom House Tower erupted from its 75-year-old Greek temple base. But has the city’s historic fabric given it a unique approach to growth or stifled the development of its skyline? At the BSA Urban Design Committee’s June 27 Boston and the Skyscraper symposium, five distinguished panelists suggested a range of possible answers laced with ironic asides on the difficulty of doing development in the city.

Harvard professor and NBBJ/Chan Krieger principal Alex Krieger FAIA lamented Boston’s insecurity about its skyline and then laid out a lineup of the world’s tallest towers that made ours look emasculated in comparison. But unlike in other cities where bigger is better, Boston has a really smart plan to manage its growth—and a 1960 napkin sketch to prove it. Traced to a BSA Committee on Civic Design and popularized by former MIT planner Kevin Lynch, it suggests a “high spine” of 20th- and 21st-century towers that provides a backdrop for our 18th- and 19th-century architectural treasures.

Boston has also adapted the generic form of the skyscraper to the specifics of Boston’s context, according to Northeastern professor and Utile partner Tim Love AIA. Its towers tend to sit on plinths that engage the buildings around them, creating a dense and continuous streetscape rather than rocket ships in eye-catching isolation. By the 1960s, high-rise/low-rise/plaza compositions became the norm as architects defined the future using Siena, Italy’s 12th-century town-hall tower/palazzo/piazza assemblage as an inspiration. As a result of this kind of creative response to local constraints, Boston could claim some of the finest towers in the world, including the John Hancock, Christian Science and Federal Reserve buildings.

Architects like to think of tall-building design as an art, but it is also an expression of power according to Yale University scholar Elihu Rubin. When Siena town hall’s soaring shaft was completed in 1357, municipal officials had the tops lopped off surrounding family-owned towers to make an unequivocal statement of who was in charge. The Prudential Insurance Company, he suggested, had a similar goal in building its new headquarters over Boston’s recently abandoned rail yards. The much-maligned and subsequently altered composition of private skyscraper, public plaza and umbilical cord of a turnpike was a powerful symbol of a company’s ambition and the hopes of a city trying to reverse decades of decline. Rubin’s compelling story of money and power reveals how much—and how little—has changed in the last 50 years of real-estate development.

Today’s builders can’t have their way with the city as they could when it was down on its knees. Blake Middleton FAIA, LEED AP of Handel Architects is the typical designer caught between profit-driven developers and a city pushing back. He’s been responsible for Millennium Place, Boylston Square and other sensitive—but not always permitted—Boston skyscrapers. Every project, as he describes it, requires adapting designs to their sites, Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and neighbor demands, and the clients’ pro forma requirements. His generous praise for the BRA was certainly heartfelt—and an acknowledgement of today’s balance of power.

The BRA has a double agenda of promoting and regulating development, and its director of planning, Kairos Shen, has to mediate between these priorities. Private development, he reminded us, pays for public improvements, so great spaces depend on noblesse oblige. But well-organized neighborhoods that can stop projects in their tracks keeps developers invested in the BRA’s public process. The goal, as Shen describes it, is to have a stunning skyline that fills that city’s coffers and an activated streetscape that keeps its neighborhoods interconnected rather than divided.

Getting a tower in the city’s skyline requires tiptoeing across a minefield of neighborhood activism and a couple hundred years of historic architecture. A public plaza sliding under a private building and an office tower rising out of a railroad station are components of projects now on the drawings boards as virtually every development responds to competing interests with complex spatial and structural solutions. The way buildings reach to the sky and hit the ground are the result of ongoing negotiations over the public benefits and private profits that every plot of land needs to provide. Whether this has made the city architecturally smarter or just more timid will be answered by each new generation of buildings and their critics.

David Eisen AIA is a principal at Abacus Architects + Planners in Boston. He is the author of Boston Modern: The Spirit of Reinvention and writes frequently on design issues for a variety of publications. He received his architecture degree at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.