Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The ICA and the new South Boston waterfront

The trouble with modern art museums is that the buildings tend to overshadow the art within. This is the case with the ICA/Boston, an arresting new building on the Fan Pier just east of downtown. Its situation is magnificent, and it stands as a major milestone in the transformation of Boston’s waterfront.

The art itself is not worth the visit, however, so I will sum it up briefly. The first glimpse of the collection in the lobby is Chiho Aoshima’s “Divine Wind”—a giant anime girl reclining along one enormous wall in the lobby, issuing a swirl of multicolored clouds and flowers from her bottom. This attempt at an ironic joke ends up only warning of the predictable and boring installations. The most flattering adjective one can apply to the collection is “interesting,” and with a few exceptions, “self-indulgent,” “contrived,” and “kitschy” are more accurate.

The building itself and the position it occupies in the evolution of Boston’s urban planning are fascinating, especially with all the recent activity having to do with the Big Dig. With the dismantling of the Central Artery downtown, planners are converting the new space into the Rose Kennedy Greenway, a well-intentioned but poorly reasoned scheme because too few people live downtown to make use of the open space (those who live in the North End might, but the Greenway is isolated between two wide boulevards and doesn’t lead to any useful citizen amenities, just the financial district).

A wiser plan would have converted the land into prime building space, easing the pressure on the already cramped real estate market. Instead, development is spilling across Fort Point Channel and onto the South Boston waterfront. Long home to docks, fish processing plants and distribution centers, vast parking lots, and the odd upscale seafood restaurant (Anthony’s on Pier 4, more recently the Barking Crab), the area is no stranger to redevelopment; the World Trade Center has spawned a colony of sleek hotels to the east, and the new Moakley Federal Courthouse is a massive castle-like edifice on the edge of Fort Point Channel. The old brown turntable bridge has been replaced by a sleeker, less distinctive span.

The ICA building heralds a shift in focus, however. No longer will the South Boston waterfront serve primarily industrial and commercial functions (most fishing operations have already moved south to New Bedford and Fall River), but, like the stretch of shore just south of the North End, anchored culturally by the Boston Aquarium and which underwent a similar metamorphosis thirty years ago, it will now have a cultural and residential purpose.

Nine blocks of new development, replacing a wide expanse of parking lots, are slated for Fan Pier. The developer, Joseph Fallon, is planning a new luxury hotel and residential building adjacent to the ICA, to be followed by various further office and residential buildings depending on demand. While the buildings are hardly skyscrapers—mostly within the 150 to 225 ft. range—their size will make it difficult for them to create the neighborhood feel of the North End or Back Bay.

Fallon, who bought the land from the embattled Pritzker family of Chicago (they have recently been embroiled in an intra-family lawsuit over the size of a grandchild’s inheritance), is intent on replicating the ICA’s glass and steel (International) architecture.

Should he? Many critics, perhaps most notably Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times, are ecstatic over the new ICA. Ouroussoff calls it “a startling display of public-spiritedness,” meanwhile noting Boston’s conservative taste in architecture. The building is intriguing and from some angles, attractive. Its cantilevered fourth floor is at its best when viewed from the east or west; unfortunately, it presents itself as a box to the south, which is the angle from which most people will see it. Inside, the lobby and restaurant occupy most of the first floor, while the second and third are taken up by a theater. The fourth floor is reserved for art, and thanks to the cantilevered design, it is much bigger than one might imagine. Two features stand out—the mediatheque, basically a downward-angling computer lab looking meditatively into the blue harbor, and a long observation corridor, which offers a stunning view of the harbor and the East Boston Shore through an entirely glass wall. Finally, the future boardwalk lining the waterfront is another excellent idea.

Fallon has found an ally in Mayor Tom Menino, who is salivating at the prospect of escaping the monstrosity that is Boston’s current city hall by building a new one further east on the South Boston waterfront. While Menino’s eagerness to move out of the dysfunctional and hideous current building (which some say is responsible for Boston’s antipathy to architectural experiments) is understandable, making a new one on the waterfront makes little sense logistically—the neighborhood is isolated, its only connection to public transportation being the much lauded but essentially slow Silver Line, and Boston does not need to further entrench its political establishment in Southie. Redeveloping the current site would make far more sense.

What’s unique architecturally about the ICA in Boston, however, is not necessarily distinctive on the international stage. Cantilevered roofs are currently in vogue among designers of cultural buildings—note Henning Larson’s new Operaen (Copenhagen Opera House) or Vienna’s refurbished Albertaina. The ICA building and future developments on Fan Pier will make a striking contrast to what Ouroussoff calls “Boston’s architectural aspirations: brick,” but will they be livable? Does Boston want to distinguish itself architecturally by emulating successful features of world cities or by emphasizing its own quirks? Is it possible to construct a vibrant urban neighborhood from glass and steel, or is Fan Pier destined to become an enclave of the wealthy and isolated as well as a tourist destination, meanwhile depriving Boston of another piece of its maritime past?

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