AS AN ARCHITECTURAL historian, I’m usually delighted to learn that an architecturally significant building has been saved from demolition. But there is no avoiding the fact that the Baker administration’s recently released plan to adapt and preserve much of Paul Rudolph’s Boston Government Service Center, due in large part to the demands of historians like myself, is exceedingly problematic.
I recently documented the Government Service Center on Staniford Street in Boston for the Historic American Buildings Survey, a division of the National Park Service that records our nation’s historic buildings to create publicly accessible records archived in the Library of Congress. During this process, I began to think less about my fascination with the complex’s distinctive Brutalist architecture and more about who it was originally constructed to serve.
Designed and built between 1960 and 1971, the Government Service Center was conceived to address the inefficiency and unequal access to social services that plagued the Massachusetts welfare system in the mid-twentieth century. It was felt that such an ambitious project would benefit from substantial design knowhow, and Paul Rudolph, who had a strong reputation as an architect of institutional buildings, was brought onto the job.
Though it looks like a single structure, the complex he designed consists of two buildings centered around a public plaza: the Hurley Employment Security Building, originally designed to provide improved access to employment opportunities, and the Lindemann Mental Health Building, intended to offer personalized community care for people with mental illness.
In the early 1960s, Rudolph was what we would today call a “starchitect.” He graced magazine covers as the architect of various high profile institutional buildings, and his presence gave the project expertise and publicity. Although he was only responsible for the complete design of the Lindemann Mental Health Building, Rudolph served as coordinating architect for the entire complex, and his ambitions were laudable.
Averse to the inhumane, one-size-fits-all mental institutions comprised of straight corridors and identical rooms, he crafted the Lindemann Mental Health Building as an arrangement of sculptural projections, winding staircases, and meandering hallways. He thought these qualities would serve as a transparent expression of the welfare system’s new mission to accommodate the needs of its distinct users, while inspiring individual responses to the building’s sensory qualities.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case.
Shortly after the complex opened, it became clear that Rudolph did not adequately consider the practical requirements of a facility designed for social services. It was almost immediately criticized by users as hard to navigate, many of its staircases and elevated walkways became safety hazards, and it has proved challenging to adapt to changing accessibility requirements—all of which have caused it to fall into disrepair. The complex has become an example of what happens when an architect’s unrealistic vision is executed at the expense of those who cannot voice their own needs.
Now, over 50 years after the complex was completed, history is about to repeat itself.
In August, the Baker administration announced its plan to completely overhaul the Hurley Employment Security Building, but it included no changes to the impractical and outdated Lindemann Mental Health Building—because it was designed by Paul Rudolph.
Ostensibly, the plans to transform the Hurley Building into mixed income housing and a “local ecosystem of innovation and technology” are laudable. But I encourage all Bostonians to visit the site and ask themselves how this will work in reality.
Once the Hurley Building is redeveloped, what will happen to the community of disabled and homeless residents of the Lindemann Building who, for decades, have used the complex’s central plaza as a place to recreate? How is it morally acceptable to not pursue the most effective redesign for a building intended to serve the neediest in our society simply because it was designed by a famous architect? For lovers of historic buildings, it’s often easy to neglect such questions. But for me, this was never an option.
My brother has a severe form of autism, and if my family did not have the means to support him, he could have become one of the hundreds of people who live in the Lindemann Building, with little say in the matter.
Even though your loved one might not be impacted by this redevelopment, we all have a moral obligation to make concessions when considering the needs of people who cannot voice their own opinions. I’m not suggesting that the Lindemann Building should be demolished—simply that a more considerate compromise be struck between preservationists and developers. It is unacceptable to provide anything less than a usable and ennobling facility for those who are by far the most vulnerable and acutely impacted by this redevelopment.
Carter Jackson is a PhD candidate in the history of art and architecture at Boston University.