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Decades ago I spent a month or two of a summer in Boston. I still remember the inward cringe when I first traversed the sterile brick plaza at Government Center. It features one of those busy concrete buildings with jutting, thrusting, and vaguely functional slabs that vaguely reminds you of a squared off Star Wars spaceship.

On Public Discourse , Ian Marcus Corbin provides a bit of the history behind the design of City Hall Plaza in Boston.

It was widely hailed by the professional urban planners and architects when completed, but as Corbin points out, it’s a part of Boston, perhaps the part, that residents love to hate, a place that made the old elevated freeway that cut across Boston seem positively organic by comparison.

Corbin compares the failed modernism of Government Center to Bernini’s great achievement: St. Peter’s Square in Rome. When it comes to public architecture, people vote with their feet. Visitors love to loiter and linger in St. Peter’s Square, not just because they’re waiting in line to get into the Basilica, but also because it’s a place where you want to stop to soak in the grandeur of the arcades of columns the screen the public space from the surrounding buildings without isolating it. By contrast, people put their heads down and hurry across what, as Corbin reports, Bostonians call the “brick desert” of City Hall Plaza.

I’m not opposed to modernism in architecture, not by any means. To my taste, some of the most exciting and inspiring cityscapes in New York involve modernist juxtapositions to traditional architectural styles. For example, at 25th St. and Madison Ave. a black glass and steel modernist tower, itself not terribly distinctive, sits between ornamented and stone-clad buildings from an earlier era. To my taste, the visual effect is akin to sorbet—cleansing the visual palate and accentuating the visual drama of the overall scene. The same holds for the glass towers that surround St. Bart’s on Park Avenue.

But modernism in architecture does not work well as organizing aesthetic for public spaces, in large part, I think, because it’s visual vocabulary is very limited. We want public spaces to speak to us of local history, perhaps, or larger ideals, or even just whimsically, as is the case with the star-filled ceiling of Grand Central Station. This communicative capacity is provided by classical and historical architectural forms—and also by more elaborate and visually complex postmodern designs.

When I look down a New York Avenue and take in a long line of modernist office towers I don’t find myself recoiling. They’re just offices after all, and there is something almost reassuring about the present conventionality and banality of modernism, suggesting as it does that corporate affairs are not world historical.

But public building buildings and civic spaces? Modernism tends to make them faceless and placeless—not a good feeling when one contemplates meaning and purpose of public life.

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