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BSA News

Jun 15, 2023

Is Beauty in the Eyes of the Beholder — or the Harleston Parker Award Jury?

BSA awards detail Paige Mc Whorter 18

Photo by Paige McWhorter.

Harleston Parker Medal Turns 100

What constitutes beauty in the current era when it comes to architecture? This is the question that underlies jury decisions for the BSA’s Harleston Parker Medal each year. The medal, which recognizes “the most beautiful piece of architecture, building, monument, or structure built in the metropolitan Boston area in the past 10 years,” marks its 100th year anniversary this year.

A Century of Beauty

A retrospective of some of the medal winners provides an interesting glimpse into what was considered beautiful at different points over the past century:

  • 1927: Motor Mart Garage, with its double helix ramp design, by Ralph Harrington Doane
  • 1953: Harvard’s Allston Burr Lecture Hall, an example of Postwar European Modernism, by Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott (since demolished)
  • 1977: Rehabilitation of the Quincy Market Building, which converted underutilized historic structures into shops and food stalls, by Benjamin Thompson and Associates
  • 1997: New England Holocaust Memorial, the only memorial ever to receive the medal, by Stanley Saitowitz
  • 2022: As If It Were Already Here, the first temporary installation to be selected, by Studio Echelman

A list of all medal winners can be found here. J. Harleston Parker established the Harleston Parker Medal in 1921 in honor of his father and the first Medal was bestowed in 1923. Parker was a Harvard graduate who studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), followed by four years at the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris. Heading the firm of Parker, Thomas, & Rice in the early 1900s, Parker designed many notable buildings.

Watershed Moments in the Evolution of Architecture—And Beauty

Architectural historians Keith Morgan, professor emeritus, American and European Architecture, at Boston University (BU), and Jay Wickersham FAIA, founding partner at Noble, Wickersham & Heart LLP, say there were several landmark periods over the past century that helped define architecture, and beauty, in the Greater Boston area.


“There may have been more of a consensus of what beauty was in the early part of the 20th century,” says Morgan “but modernism arrived in the 1950s and blew it up.” Wickersham points to three Boston-area buildings that historians think are leading examples of modernism: the Harvard Graduate Center by The Architects Collaborative (1950), the Jewett Art Center at Wellesley College by Paul Rudolph (1958), and the Baker House at MIT by Alvar Aalto (1949). He notes that none of these were selected for the Harleston Parker Medal, but they helped usher in “the next generation of heroic modern architecture.”

Adaptive Reuse in the Context of the Broader City

“Another watershed moment was Ben Thompson’s creative redevelopment of the Quincy Market Building from 1976-78,” says Wickersham. “This was an early example of preservation and reuse of an existing building, heralding a movement that became so important to the city. It was not a new building, and represents a dialogue between the past and present.” Wickersham also says that this project, which received the Harleston Parker Medal, represented a shift in mindset: thinking of the building as not just an isolated structure, but as part of the broader city. Wickersham points to The Halverson Company’s and Ellenzweig Associates’ work at Post Office Square in 1990-91 (Harleston Parker Medal winner) as another example: By putting the parking garage underground, they were able to create a new park: “giving back to the public a wonderful public space in the middle of the city.”


The third period is focused on environmentalism and sustainability, launched with the Genzyme Center, a LEED Platinum building, built by Behnisch and Behnisch in 2004 and awarded the Harleston Parker Medal in 2008. “At that time, European firms had much deeper expertise in energy efficiency than American contemporaries,” says Morgan. “Genzyme had to look abroad to get low-carbon energy efficient design.” Since then, sustainability has become the standard for performance and “significant buildings need to be carbon neutral,” says Wickersham. “How will this emphasis on sustainability affect the spatial experience of the buildings we design? That is an open question.”

The Future

When asked what is next in the evolution of beauty, Morgan comments on the Center for Computing & Data Sciences at BU: “It is a very sustainable building, but will the building be acceptable because it breaks the code on the landscape? We will have to see how people react.”

And, all in the BSA community will need to await the next chapter on beauty that will be revealed when the Harleston Parker Medal is presented, with much fanfare to honor its long heritage, early in 2024 at the BSA’s Design Awards Gala. Don’t miss it!