The Long View

Boston’s Christian Science Plaza can evolve without sacrificing its greatest moment. 

By Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA

The reflecting pool at Boston’s Christian Science Plaza/ Photo by Alan Ward.

Each generation makes and remakes the city, through grand schemes and incremental acts. As they alter the city’s streets and public spaces, our mayors, developers, institutions, planners, architects, engineers, and landscape architects reimagine the texture and shape of urban life. Aldo Rossi suggests, in The Architecture of the City (1966), that the city is built on the collective memory of events and impulses, achievements and artifacts, and forces of evolutionary change; its cultural ethos accrues through alteration and the passage of time. Would anyone not endorse Boston as a consummate example?

People love Boston’s coherent, identifiable character, one that evolved over four centuries as it has grown from a coastal village to a thriving metropolis. It’s a city rich in cultural assets—America’s Athens. Its iconic spaces have by necessity adapted to changing contexts: the practical simplicity of the Common, which supports varied forms of public life today as it did in 1620; the pattern of crooked colonial streets, which keeps travel downtown confusing to visitors but picturesquely varied and pleasing; the elegant hierarchies and radical urban reform expressed in the planning of the Back Bay and Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, which have proved resilient in the face of massive change; the inspired and majestic rock pile of H. H. Richardson’s Trinity Church, somehow even more compelling alongside the prismatic marvel of Harry Cobb’s John Hancock Tower. We can all identify other notable Boston treasures and how they’ve been altered in the face of new realities.Many of us count Boston’s Christian Science Plaza among the nation’s great works of the 20th-century period of high modernism—a time that delivered few urban projects deserving of admiration. Plans for a new generation of development on the plaza, put forth by its owners, the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and widely debated over the past two years, would reposition some of the church’s undervalued real estate portfolio and add several new buildings of significant size and height. These measures depend on current hopes for increased demand for prominent commercial space as the economy rebounds, and the revenues they generate would help rebuild and sustain the plaza’s main features—its gardens, fountains, promenades, and widely admired reflecting pool—for future generations. This kind of evolution is welcomed, and it naturally builds on the unbending commitment to care and stewardship the church has demonstrated in preserving the plaza’s public spaces for more than 40 years. But if the plaza has achieved significance for its design characteristics, who decides exactly how it should change?

As we’ve watched the renewal of New York’s Lincoln Center over the past decade, where another midcentury modern urban complex has been superbly remade, I’ve held some hope that the current plan to increase density on the Christian Science site could bring new energy to a Boston neighborhood in need of a lift. Consensus emerged around this idea among the city’s planning staff and the plaza’s neighbors in spite of the recession’s slow ebb. It will happen, and it should. But there is one aspect of the plan that worries me: a proposal to cross the reflecting pool with a new walkway. This intrusion would profoundly change the feature that most clearly establishes the plaza’s design brilliance. Is it really necessary to alter the pool’s proportions to create a more convenient crossing at the middle and break the figure into two?

I am all for careful and deliberate change on the plaza. Full disclosure: I helped direct a design team a dozen years ago to produce a plan to revitalize it, and that plan called for some notable alterations. One project that resulted from that effort renovated the Publishing House court on the corner of the plaza and established a separate garden entrance for the newly organized Mary Baker Eddy Library. Another completed project replaced the original annuals plantings along the reflecting pool with the mixed perennial and evergreen garden we enjoy today. These projects endowed the place with a livelier, more sustainable public horticulture, on a scale that complements and extends the scale of the plaza’s vast dimensions.

The site was not always grand. When Mary Baker Eddy and the community of the First Church of Christ, Scientist erected the original Mother Church on St. Paul Street in 1894, the building’s handsomely proportioned granite edifice staked a modest claim along a seam between the established South End and the emerging Back Bay development. Emboldened by the completion of the architect Charles Brigham’s much larger church extension in 1906, the church joined with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and the Boston Symphony in establishing a district of unparalleled cultural force along the city’s expanding western front. Growing respect worldwide for the Christian Science Monitor continued to propel this evolution when the headquarters of the Christian Science Publishing Society opened in 1934—a boldly scaled and confidently metropolitan building. By the mid-1960s, a redevelopment plan emerged to create the administrative and spiritual complex we know today as the Christian Science Center.

Planners in this period urged cities to rid their tax rolls of the decayed housing stock and worn neighborhoods that had been wracked by repressive social practices including disinvestment and racial discrimination—the regrettable cycle we know historically as urban renewal. Both the Christian Science Center and Boston’s Government Center exemplify this phenomenon; vast projects of rebuilding emerged in both places. The tactics of neighborhood destruction were ultimately repudiated, but not before they caused massive amounts of upheaval. In response to this trend nationwide, and in the wake of the earth-shattering demolition of New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963—the preservation shot heard ’round the world—well-placed guardians and advocates rallied. Over time, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and state and local efforts that followed helped shape a culture that carefully considers the value of historic and cultural resources. Cities learned to ascribe greater asset value to accumulated building heritage and the human narratives that shape local history. By now, through decades of evolving governance, scholarly work, and often contentious situations of advocacy in the face of threat, we’ve developed the critical practices needed to make reasoned appraisals of the accrued cultural value in our monuments and spaces.

These practices don’t guarantee good results, as we know from many battles lost on weak arguments or to political dictates; but democracy and the law guarantee that a debate will ensue. Because the scale of redevelopment being contemplated by the church for its property is large, agency and community review led to detailed consideration of the site’s historic resources. And through that process, though the plaza was completed only 40 years ago, the Boston Landmarks Commission approved Landmark status for the entire plaza in 2011. The commission staff’s extensive study will now become part of the evidence as the city reviews each new project for its impacts on the neighborhood and on the plaza.

We’ve recognized and moved on from the human and physical tragedies that resulted from urban renewal in Boston and nationwide. But in my estimation, the plaza that arose from the eradication of an eroded Boston neighborhood is a triumph. The Christian Science Center was justly acclaimed for its refinement and beauty. It brought greater physical prominence to an institution that had helped alter the spiritual and social landscape of a conservative city. More profound, it proved that we could successfully—though rarely—translate the traditional devices of monumentality and grand gesture into modernist forms of expression in renovating the city. The place is utterly memorable. The architect Araldo Cossutta (a partner with I. M. Pei at the time) and the landscape architects Hideo Sasaki and Stuart Dawson, FASLA, achieved something few other designers of the period could: dramatic urban space that beautifully delivers on the tactics of gigantic scale, distance, perspective, pause, and repose.

For me, the reflecting pool remains the most essential ingredient in this drama: a great singular act, astonishing in its length and breadth. It is the monumental placeholder, gathering everything around it in remarkable, balanced tension. We all marvel at the gentle cascading edge and the impression it creates of the water as a mysterious solid body. A walk along the reflecting pool—and the compulsion to move around it—amounts to an act of respect for the edifices of the church and other surrounding buildings. By extension, it is an act of respect for the city.

Many of the spaces we praise in the world’s great urban centers, such as Rome’s piazzas and Barcelona’s ramblas, were made for promenading and procession. In this tradition, the Christian Science Plaza manifested a belief by its designers that anonymous public encounter—walking in the city—affirms the values of community and social exchange. By approving and then funding the plans in the 1960s, the ambitious church leaders supported their designers’ conviction that urban life demands a certain public civility and decorum. They endowed their property with a civic spirit and built a vast urban surface that welcomes all citizens, no matter their faith or affiliation. Though in strictly factual terms it was private, it was ultimately public and accessible to all the city’s residents and visitors.

Their achievement remains strong and spatially beautiful. The reflections of the Mother Church and Cossutta’s Church Colonnade are unsurpassable. The plaza is elegantly framed by a bosque of 200 linden trees, arranged in a quincunx pattern that derives from French medieval and baroque fruit tree plantations. For me, these trees remain the single greatest geometric planted form in Boston—unparalleled in our city and uncommon in North America. Because of the church’s enormous and continuous commitment to stewardship, and thanks to the provision in the original Sasaki project of intelligent technical details to provide horticultural support for the trees, not a single linden has been lost in the 40 years since they were installed. These trees and their formidable companion, the reflecting pool, rise to the status of treasured artifacts of culture—elements of Rossi’s collective memory, and together the kind of landmark that the planner Kevin Lynch defined as essential to urban coherence. Sustaining them now requires a curatorial sensibility. Though costly, it can and must be done.

Change is inevitable. It’s essential to urban life. Let’s accept that a monument of this kind can survive significant change around its edges. But we should also be sure to insist on the most exacting and deliberate arguments for what must remain when we alter this inspiring place. Our laws give property owners the right to profit from their investments and make their assets sustainable, within limits. Greater density is the key to sustainability in this case. The leaks into the parking garage below the water feature must be fixed. Good technology and design can greatly reduce the vast amounts of water and energy the pool consumes today. More beneficial shade and greater seasonal interest could be carefully achieved elsewhere along the plaza. But we can accomplish all this without sacrificing the essential character of one of Boston’s most notable and respected urban interventions. If we do so, we will persist in refining the legacy of American democratic space and demonstrate again our capacity for adapting our greatest artifacts without losing the essential characteristics that make them worth keeping.

Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, is principal of Reed Hilderbrand in Watertown, Massachusetts, and is adjunct professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

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