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Cityscapes of Boston, Robert Campbell & Peter Vanderwarker at the BPL


Robert Campbell doesn’t lecture very often, but when he does, he packs the house. Boston’s own Pulitzer-winning architecture critic delighted and mesmerized the audience during a lecture held at the Boston Public Library on Tuesday November 13. Campbell joined notable architecture photographer Peter Vanderwarker in an engaging talk part of Building Boston—the Boston Public Library’s citywide initiative to celebrate the city’s public spaces and architecture.

The talk was loosely based on the 1994 book Cityscapes of Boston: An American City Through Time also by Campbell and Vanderwarker. Architectural photography was the main topic of the night, but just as in the book, Campbell wove in stories and anecdotes surrounding three public spaces in Boston: Boston City Hall and its suffocating plaza, Fort Hill—now the site of One International Place, an awfully ugly building by Philip Johnson and John Burgee and lastly, Copley Square and the John Hancock building.

Vanderwarker used both historic and contemporary photographs (his own) to illustrate how Bostonians have used public spaces through time. Connections were drawn between the busy streets of the West End prior to its demolition and the current emptiness of City Hall Plaza. As it stands, the plaza does not work, but Campbell pointed out that it was meant to be filled with people at all times—we know that this has only happened a handful of times and usually when one of our national sports teams wins a major championship. What’s a talk about Boston architecture that doesn't involve mentioning the aesthetics of City Hall? "…a kind of a wonderful, ugly building…" said Campbell adding "… but I don’t think it’s ugly." "…it has suffered and endured. I hope it endures for a long time." I hope so too Mr. Campbell.

Both Campbell and Vanderwarker discussed Johnson and Burgee's One International Place, a high rise in the Financial District clad in Palladian-like window motifs. Johnson was more of a critic than an architect and this building tells us that we no longer build buildings like we used to, instead we get a frame and wrap wallpaper around it. One International Place is a building Bostonians struggle to like.

Their wonderful talk ended with the elegant John Hancock tower and a revelatory (to me at least) image of the Hotel Westminster which stood on the current site of the Hancock building. The hotel's architectural decorations would have complimented Trinity Church beautifully, but the Hancock does a great job at conxtextualizing all the buildings on Copley Square.

It’s always a treat to hear Robert Campbell speak and this time around it was even more special thanks to Peter Vanderwarker. I only wish I could read more of Campbell's criticism on a regular basis or see him join twitter. Are you listening Bob? Join the twitterlution. The talk was recorded and will be made available for download on the BPL’s website.

About Author

Anulfo AKA The Evolving Critic is a preservationist and blogger with a strong interest in architectural history, urbanism, and the parallels between fashion and architecture. He holds degrees in Tourism Planning and Development from the University of New Hampshire and in the History of Art and Architecture from Boston University. Anulfo has written for the Boston Society of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He oversaw BR&S's blog, Our Daily Red, from 2012-14.

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