It was a bad week for Boston businessman-cum-developer Steve Belkin. On March 13, the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) issued a 90-day stay against the demolition of Paul Rudolph’s 1960 Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building. Belkin owns the building and had planned to pull it down to make room for a tower in the city’s financial district designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW), which, at 80 stories, would have become the city’s tallest. Four days later, Piano quit the project in a battle for creative control of the design.
Piano was not driven away by the preservation of 133 Federal Street, Rudolph’s boxy 13-story concrete building, but by the urge to preserve his own work. "There have been requests to change,” an anonymous executive at RPBW toldThe Boston Globe. “Some modifications were asked for. We felt they weren’t appropriate." RPBW declined requests from AN for comment.
“We hired the Renzo Piano Building Workshop to undertake a conceptual design for our proposed tower,” Belkin said in a statement, but a source from the Boston architectural community suggested that this was not the original arrangement. Executive architects CBT are now in charge of the design. No word yet as to whether the project will continue to carry the Piano name or how much his designs could still change. Mayor Thomas Menino, who vigorously supports the project, referred to the new plans as “Renzo Piano–inspired.”
And Belkin still has the BLC to contend with. Though the commission has limited authority over buildings outside historic districts or not designated as individual landmarks, it reviews all buildings in downtown Boston slated for demolition. If the BLC deems a building of historical, cultural, recreational, or, in this case, architectural significance, it can issue a demolition delay, which protects it for 90 days.
During this time, preservationists who supported the delay are encouraged to discuss alternate plans with the developer and the city. These alternative plans are nonbinding, and the developer is free to proceed how it sees fit once the demolition delay expires. “It is certainly our intent to sit down and listen,” a spokesperson for Belkin said. “But this all happened a week ago, so nothing has happened yet.”
For preservationists and Rudolph fans, the fact that Belkin wants to demolish an early work by one of modernism’s most controversial and influential practitioners is bad enough. But they are further angered because the tower would not rise directly off the Rudolph footprint but instead from that of an adjacent city-owned parking garage. A public plaza would occupy the space where 133 Federal Street now stands.
Nonetheless, the city still supports plans to demolish Rudolph’s work. “It behaves like a freestanding structure even with the garage on two sides,” said Kairos Shen, director of planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which is overseeing the project for the city. “You couldn’t really integrate it with another building.”
Sarah Kelly, director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, disagrees. “We’d like to see a range of alternatives,” she said. “No one is opposed to development, but the project should not be just new or old. I’m always optimistic that we will be able to find a win-win situation.”
One of the most popular alternatives was put forth by Tim Rohan, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who is writing a book about the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building. The proposal draws on Rudolph’s own 1987 studies for a seven-story addition to the building.
But Rohan is uncertain such a plan would be successful without the involvement of RPBW. “In a way, I would rather have seen Renzo Piano involved,” he said. “He is a great architect, and I thought it was a great opportunity for him to work with an existing structure or a fragment of it, because he had been so successful with that in the past, like at the Morgan Library.”