In Boston, the genius of the city is its highway system - an experiential sequence of tunnels, bridges, overhead passages, ring roads, and an assortment of traffic signals and turnpike booths. The dominance of the infrastructure is omnipresent, and it seems to be a superhuman entity that everyone has to deal with on a daily basis -- more so than architecture itself (or buildings themselves.)
But driving through tunnels can be beautiful and surreal, a futuristic thoroughfare (netherworld) under the old city. It is an X-Ray glimpse of what lies underneath - a metaphor for the internet age, with a pastiche historical outer exterior and an internal, invisible network of streamlined tunnels and passages, the real drivers of the economy today.
The frontier of American architecture is not at the edges of globalization, or at the edge of raw nature - of scenic forest cabins, lakehouses, and deserts. They are not along the gilded avenues of New York City, where American developers are (finally) adopting "Asian-style" density into new developments, and new buildings cater to the 1% and the emerging, globalized professional class. The frontier "edges" are where our suburbs meet our cities, at the intersection of gentrification and cultural clashes, where the forces of history, immigration, and globalization converge to redefine "local space", and to redefine urban life. The frontier is at the gritty, contested edges of urban cores all across the country.
Boston is a abstruse collage of different architectural styles and trends, a victim (and perpetrator) of late 20th century's exploration of aesthetics and formalism in architecture. There are architectural icons - the colonial Old North Church, the brutalist City Hall, the late modernist John Hancock Tower - scattered about a sea of mediocre post-modern or faux-historic buildings, all seeking stylistic flair without architectural honesty, conceptual clarity or real content. These da-me buildings of Boston are driven mostly by development capital, its styles and "aesthetic interests" driven by the fashion tastes of investors in their 40s and 50s, propagating the "Best Practices" of 5 or 10 years past. It seems as though the city's architectural tastes are under the tyranny of the commercial developers, who has exported - and then recycled - the used up design aesthetics of New York City. The city's big developers plays catch-up to the "fashionable trends" of the day, importing dazzling elements while propagating "best practices" design paradigms of the past, without critically thinking about what will work best for the future - or inventing something new. (Much like New York City imports a lot of its design expertise from abroad, Boston imports what has already worked in New York and other cities.)
It seems as though the Cambridge elites, at MIT and Harvard, stay away from the gritty realities of building in Boston, and instead seek out a glamorous closed circle of exotic sites and locales (Asian megacities, Latin American slums, Japanese micro-tecture, Iberian landscapes, and developing country backwaters) where they can flaunt their works and theories, free from the slow, nasty, and frustrating entanglements of politics, people, and democracy that often-times derail beautiful architectural theories and concepts. This antipathy about architecture in Boston from the great architecture schools of Cambridge stems a lot from the typical "Town-Gown" divide in college towns, as well as the historic role of architecture serving society's elites - architecture, at the end of the day, will only trickle down to the public (or the common man) when the elites condone them in great acts of generosity or civic duty (i.e. such as Boston Commons, the Boston Fens, and Copley Square).
But it ought not be this way. Boston has plenty to offer, and plenty of local conditions to explore and to understand. All it takes is a little bit of imagination and a way of thinking differently.
1. Industrial and active waterfronts
2. Automobile Infrastructure and the Highway System
3. Transit Problems and Capacity
4. Housing, Gentrification, and the transformation of single-family homes to apartment units
In additional to universal tools, emerging technologies, we have to exploit local conditions and examine what makes this point on the planet special. This means more than just site analysis. This means city analysis. This means community analysis. This means a thorough understanding of (cultural) history, and why the surroundings are built the way they are.
Chicago has its modernist tradition and Miesian pedagogy.
Los Angeles has its freeways and architecture of the automobile.
New York has its Manhattanism and aesthetics of density, commerce, and capital.
The Pacific Northwest has its roots in understanding landscapes and sites.
What does Boston have? Small-minded New England provincialism? What about its tyranny of historicism? Its uneasy relationship with modernism? Its poor details? Its crass and uncritical (historical) formalism? Its collage of systems and styles, and its lack of a design pedagogy / education?
Some local elements/types:
1. New England stone walls (and fences)
2. Boston Brick
3. A strict separation between exterior and interior (due to weather), building and landscape, park and city, Land and Water
4. New England siding, Cape Cod houses
5. Wharf warehouses
6. Conservative ideas about common spaces, street spaces, and private spaces
7. Infrastructural Brutalism