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Profile: Tad Stahl FAIA

Name: Frederick A. (Tad) Stahl FAIA DCP (hon)
Job title/company: Designer/Stantec
Degree(s): BA, Dartmouth College; MArch, MIT
Current personal interest: Protection and enhancement of residential life in downtown Boston neighborhoods
Current professional interests: Beacon Hill Civic Association; Boston Architectural College; Historic New England

What are you working on now?

Beacon Hill Civic Association
I co-chair the Beacon Hill Civic Association Planning and Oversight Committee, which is responsible for identifying, monitoring and engaging in development or redevelopment proposals in the city that may have an impact on the quality of residential life in our downtown neighborhood. We work collaboratively with our colleagues in the West End, Downtown North, the North End and Waterfront—which today comprise more than 40,000 residents—to preserve and enhance the quality and character of urban living. Committee members serve on numerous city, state and agency citizen-advisory groups related to proposed institutional, commercial, residential and transportation projects and proposals.

Boston Architectural College
The Boston Architectural College (BAC) is the only American school of design based on concurrent learning within both academic and professional practice settings, although this system is more common in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands. It currently offers six professional [degrees] and one undergraduate degree to more than 1,000 students, is a leader in distance learning and is very active in support of community benefit projects throughout Greater Boston. It is intimately connected to the design professions in Boston through its hundreds of professional volunteer teachers and participating employers. My own experience of the academy and actual practice convinced me many years ago of the great effectiveness of this approach to design training.

Historic New England
I assist in the organization and preservation of the archives of my architectural practice that are in the custody of Historic New England. Understanding, appreciation and preservation of the architecture of the modern era is now well established and is given priority in several significant libraries, archives and recent exhibitions.

How do you explain to your mom what you do for a living?

My mother was a product of the pre–World War I Edwardian era, and her professional interests were in the field of medicine; she had little opportunity to learn about design as a discipline or consider that my choice of career might be architecture. I think she would readily understand what I am doing now, but she was originally quite unfamiliar with what the life of an architect might be, once having asked me if I had sold any drawings recently.

What inspired you today?

The City of Boston inspires me every day, for the most part having taken advantage of its remarkable heritage of urban development and the architecture of the past. The depression years had left a deep imprint on the city, which began to lift only in the 1960s and ’70s; today there is abundant energy and opportunity for a rewarding life experience for this and future generations in our unique urban fabric.

What architectural buzzword (concept) would you kill?

Starchitect. The profession has been exemplified far too long by virtuosos who astonish and entertain us with novelty and distortion, neglecting the fundamental principles that support humane and sustainable planning, design and construction. The alert citizen frequently exhibits a better understanding of the values we should incorporate in our work.

Branding. We are gradually losing our way in a thicket of logos and slogans that proffer images without substance and where the meaning, if any, of what they represent becomes increasingly distant and inaccessible.

When you’re working, do you discuss or exchange ideas with your colleagues?

Of course; my professional team was real family to me; we were all volunteers who wanted to work together.

What are you reading?

Concrete Planet [by Robert Courland]; also, iconic crime fiction of the 1930s—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Damon Runyon etc.

Do you sketch by hand or digitally?

By hand, but without any significant artistic ability. I like to think I can draw an eloquent straight line.

Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?

Sydney, Australia, to consult on the redevelopment of the Walsh Bay wharves; Washington, DC, to consult on the rehabilitation of Union Station. These assignments came my way as a result of the successful restoration and revitalization of the Faneuil Hall Market buildings, for which I served as architect and planner.

Where is the field of architecture headed?

Much of the profession is being absorbed into the global corporate complex, and this trend will undoubtedly continue. I am optimistic about younger, smaller firms whose versatility, flexibility and creativity are more readily engaged and applied.

Can design save the world?

Design is a result of its cultural context and imperatives, which does not bode well for such a mission; we generally get the architecture and design our culture deserves. I agree with POGO.

What do you hope to contribute from your work?

In planning and urban design, a coherent and intelligible civil order, responsive and supportive of urban life; in architecture, a consonance with universal principles of natural law, cultural responsibility and intellectual rigor. The metropolis is both the ancient and contemporary prime source and support of civilization; it is now the habitat of more than 50 percent of the globe’s population. Boston is first among American cities to have had this consciousness, and despite its loss for much of the 20th century, evidence of revitalization is abundant.

Who or what deserves credit for your success?

On reflection, I must credit my extreme good fortune for a great deal of what I consider success; more specifically, that I met and grew to know, in person or in their thought and work, remarkable representatives of Homo sapiens. I sometimes envision an architectural frieze, analogous to that of the BPL, to honor those whose thought, words and works have inspired me, as follows:

We do stand on the shoulders of giants:
Isaac Newton
Andrea Palladio
Sir John Soane
Alexander Parris
Theo van Doesburg
Piet Mondriaan
Le Corbusier
Giuseppe Terragni
Jose Lluis Sert
Ralph Rapson
Lewis Mumford
Jane Jacobs
Hugh Morrison (history of architecture/Dartmouth College)
Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (social philosopher/Dartmouth College)
Lawrence B. Anderson (chairman of architecture/MIT)
Douglas Stephen (colleague and mentor/London)
James Lawrence and Joseph Richardson (professional godfathers)
Hans Busso von Busse (studio classmate/MIT and lifelong friend)
Bill LeMessurier (professional colleague/collaborator)

Your least favorite college class?

Chemistry. I could find no way to visualize a chemical reaction, and the formulas were a foreign language without apparent grammatical sense.

If you could give you-of-10-years-ago advice, what would it be?

Continue to make the best of whatever comes to hand.

Your favorite Boston-area structure?

Faneuil Hall Market buildings—Alexander Parris, architect
Boston City Hall—Kallmann McKinnell & Wood Architects
BU Law School Tower—Jose Lluis Sert, architect

Who would you like the BSA to interview next?

Tim Love AIA of Utile

If you were on a late-night TV show, what would your 30-second plug be?

Question authority and conventional wisdom; cultivate curiosity, patience and perseverance; teach yourself to think and to see; search for the universal beyond the superficial.

If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?

Citizen! Take Responsibility!

Remarks at the Award of Honor presentation to Frederick A. Stahl FAIA on April 26, 2012:

Our speakers tonight have reminded us of the significance of Tad Stahl’s work, and of his influence on succeeding generations of architects. Tad’s commitment to the urban idea, and to the city of Boston in particular, have been hallmarks of his long career.

Tad Stahl believed in an urban future for Boston at a time when that vision was not widely shared, and his work helped make the vision a reality. He embraced both modernism and preservation as complementary and essential facets of urban development, and created icons in each realm: the State Street Bank Building and the Faneuil Hall Market buildings are landmarks and symbols of Boston’s late-20th century renaissance. Earlier than most, Tad Stahl recognized Boston’s distinctive historic fabric as the cornerstone of a vibrant future.

As most of you know, Tad has, for many years, been a tremendous advocate and supporter of the Boston Architectural College, working to advance the profession and mentoring architects-in-training. He also lived out his commitment to the city as a leader of the Beacon Hill Civic Association. Long before the phrase gained currency, Tad was walking the walk as a “citizen architect.”

In a recent interview for the BSA website, Tad was asked “What inspired you today?” His answer? “The City of Boston inspires me every day.” Well, Tad, what you’ve created out of that inspiration has made Boston a more livable, humane and beautiful city for all of us. I think I speak for everyone present when I say that I am inspired by your example of a life fully engaged and energized in pursuit of the greater good. Today we are inspired by Tad Stahl!

And so, in recognition of outstanding contributions to architecture and the profession, and his ongoing influence on the fabric and life of our city, I am proud to present the BSA Award of Honor to Frederick A. Stahl FAIA.

Editorial note: Stahl passed away July 26, 2013. Read his obituary online.