The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Friday, August 15, 2008

Banal in the Extreme

Why the Times' critic slammed Springfield.

"A noble cityscape....decimated by arrogant architects and city planners." (Ziff photo)

The following is a reprint of an article by Kris Hundley that originally appeared in the Valley Advocate on May 12, 1986. It is a devastating condemnation of the so-called "economic redevelopment" of downtown Springfield by one of the nation's most respected urban experts. It is also a valuable document of local history never before made available online.

Springfield: "Banal in the Extreme"
Critic Paul Goldberger appraises Springfield's architecture

by Kris Hundley

Paul Goldberger, Pulitzer prize-winning architectural critic of The New York Times came to Springfield recently and told city fathers, in no uncertain terms, that the downtown development they've overseen in the last two decades has been a disaster. But David Starr, publisher of the Springfield Newspapers and member of a panel discussing Goldberger's comments, defended the city's record. "Whatever we've done badly, we've planned it that way," Starr said.

Goldberger, whose visit was the third in a series of lectures on the future of Springfield, told his audience, "I come away after a day in your city with both optimism and pessimism. You have a noble cityscape with a truly great stock of older buildings and as good a sense of what to do with them as any city in America. But you've been decimated in recent years by arrogant architects and city planners." Calling recent architecture "the real Achilles' heel of Springfield," Goldberger blasted downtown skyscrapers as "banal in the extreme, dull, stark, cold and indifferent to the street."

Goldberger, who gave his lecture in the historic First Church on Court Square, diplomatically tempered his criticism of recent debacles with praise for preservationist efforts. "Poverty may have been Springfield's best friend during the 1950's and '60's, because it led to passive preservation of old buildings," Goldberger said. "And lately, the preservationist instinct here seems phenomenal. But there are few cities where the old is so uniformly good and the new so generally disappointing."

Singled out for criticism were buildings which have been touted by local movers and shakers as the flagships of downtown revitalization. "Baystate West is bad, but Center Square, right across the street, is even more disappointing," Goldberger told an audience which included Starr, Mayor Richard E. Neal and Carlo Marchetti, director of Springfield Central, the agency responsible for co-ordinating downtown development. "You have a main corner in the city, which has been shut off and left empty, with an uninviting plaza that does no one any good. That building represents not an understanding of the urban experience, but an attempt to recreate a suburban mall. And a city should offer a powerful alternative to the suburbs."

Based on his observations of the Bank of Boston Building, Goldberger said that city planners had learned little from the mistakes of Baystate West. "Neither building was constructed as much as whirred out of a computer or dropped by helicopter, they have so little relation to the street," he said. "While you have atriums and open spaces, there's a desire for control that makes everything canned and packaged. These public-quasi-private spaces are separated from the street and thy lack the potential of surprise that is essential to the urban experience."

Goldberger said it was "sad that the Federal government had it in for Springfield," in the design of the new Federal Building and he nailed the Civic Center as "one of the real mistakes of this city." Referring to Court Square, he said, "This has the potential to be one of the finest urban spaces in any medium sized city. But the Civic Center is by far the weakest link. Something should be done with real responsibility to help - if not hide - that building."

The critic also pointed out important gaps in downtown development. "The killer is the missing teeth. It's not good to see a parking lot at the corner of Main and State streets - one of the most important corners in town. You have lots of room for downtown development."

Other negatives cited by Goldberger included the Main Street airwalk connecting Baystate West and Steiger's. "I don't think much of airwalks, but that one seems particularly heavy handed and uglier than it has to be," he said. "It's like a great steel door that blocks the street and the unfolding vista. You lose something important." And while he bemoaned the placement of the highway between the city and the river, Goldberger said he feared future plans might make the situation even worse. "The one thing I heard today that gave me pause was that there are plans to construct a second layer of parking under the freeway. I think that's a questionable plan, because now at least, you can look under the highway and see the river. If there's a double deck of parking, all you will see is a solid wall."

Although he generously withheld criticism of Monarch Place now under construction, Goldberger did drop one warning. "The stone and precast concrete they're using looks promising, but I'm not confident of the used of mirrored glass on the one side facing the municipal group. You have one of the great, medium-sized public complexes in America, but I think one of them is enough."

On the positive side, Goldberger praised Springfield's neighborhoods, particularly Forest Park, McKnight, and Mattoon Street, which, he said "bowled me over." "There's also a concern for the little things in this town, like the Forest Park street car shelter, and little green islands and flowers. Things that are critical to the quality of city life. There seems to be an understanding that a city is not made up of great, grand gestures, but of small steps, and hundreds of little parts. If the peple can only dictate their wishes to the architects of downtown, it may yield in our lifetime a city as great as the Springfield of half a century ago."

Following Goldberger's talk, several of the architects of downtown defended their actions. Springfield Central's Marchetti said, "While we're all quite pleased with what we've done in the past 10 years, we must accept your challenge to great design." And David Starr insisted that the city fathers should be praised for at least having a plan, however it may have turned out to be.

"I agree that the SIS building (Center Square) is quite bad, but at least it was built where we wanted it build," Starr said. "We were determined to use public places our own way, though we may not have succeeded in most of the aesthetics."

This is a picture I stumbled upon of Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh at the Springfield Civic Center in 1979.

Heather, who works at the Amherst Survival Center, came in wearing a new hat yesterday.

She even had matching sneakers.

Finally, only in Northampton do people sing at City Council meetings. I wonder if they charged him the new $25 public performance permit fee.

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