Beaux-Arts Boston: The City Beautiful


There was once a point in time where people would finance beauty for public enjoyment. It was a shared value that everyone could appreciate, and would add value to the public sphere. Knowledge was a public virtue that could make society better. This ideal is epitomized by Copley Square in Boston. In the bustling Back Bay Historic District, Copley Square stands out as one of the most beautiful urban areas in the world. The size of one city block, it delivers architectural styles ranging from the High Victorian Gothic of the mid 1800s to the bold International Style in the 1970s. The square encapsulates the “city beautiful” ideal of the Beaux-Arts school of architecture in France. Always in flux, the buildings surrounding the square combine to create a surreal experience, bound to capture the imaginations of tourists and locals alike. It is the epitome of creating beauty for the public, accented with the addition of the Boston Public Library, confirming the city’s dedication to knowledge, while also adding aesthetic value to a beautiful part of the city.

There are several unique factors that make Copley Square a meaningful urban space. The first is the John Hancock Tower. One of the most recognizable symbols of the city, the Hancock was designed by architects Henry Cobb and I.M. Pei and was completed in 1976. As the tallest building in Boston – and New England – it is visible from miles away, indicating Back Bay’s influence as the face of the city. It is not uncommon to see tourists wandering around its walls, staring at its great height or looking at their reflections on the glass. In fact, it is almost impossible to go to a Boston gift shop without seeing the recognizable glass and shape of the Hancock Tower. No skyline photo is complete with out it, and it often harkens as the city’s business center, without actually being downtown.

It faced significant trouble when its windows started falling out shortly after completion. Due to a complex mixture of physics and engineering, the wind actually caused the building to bend in such a way that the windows would dislodge from their holdings and descend on the world below. It is nothing short of a miracle that no one was hurt from the glass from the sky, but is a fitting allusion to the history of Boston itself. As a city faced with its fair share of bumpy history, from the hundreds killed in the Revolutionary War to the turmoil resulting from busing. Despite these bumps, Boston has recovered to become a city on the international scale and an icon for the rest of America. The Hancock operates in much the same way for its surroundings. Its windows are now secure and it captures the heart and soul of the city – often seen in its reflecting windows.

Further, Trinity Church adds to Copley Square’s mystique. Designed by the magnificent Henry Hobson Richardson, it has often been called one of the most beautiful buildings in the country and in the world. It is a hallmark of the Richardsonian Romanesque style, complete with archways, magnificent carvings and statues, and a tower that draws the viewer upward towards the heavens. At nighttime the building is illuminated and commands respect from the Square below. It is an imposing building, and stands out when juxtaposed against the modern skyscrapers in the background. It is regal as the centerpiece of Copley, and is an interesting mix of public space and private worship.

This has always been a subject of interest when studying architecture. People from around the world come to Boston to admire the church’s natural beauty, while other come inside to worship the beauty of the heavens. People come inside to view its magnificent interior architecture, while others come inside to go to work. The dichotomy between private worship and public admiration does not cause tension, but rather acts to reinforce the natural connection between spirituality, reflection, and the individual.

Directly across from Trinity Church is the centerpiece of the city beautiful: The Boston Public Library. Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, the BPL represents America’s first public library. Boston has always been a city of firsts, including the first public park and first underground subway system in America. The BPL further cements Boston’s dedication to the advancement of the public good by creating a center for learning in an environment just as beautiful. The exterior alone is worthy of marvel: beautiful rhythmic black lamps accentuate the arched doorway and clay tile roof, clearly a nod to its Italian villa influence. Its façade is etched with the phrase, “The Public Library of the City of Boston Built By The People And Dedicated To The Advancement Of Learning.” Open to the public, the inside provides a safe space for reflection, admiration, and reading. It is highlighted by the Bates Reading Room, a majestic room with high vaulted ceilings that create a quiet space for reading and writing. The building itself is shaped like a doughnut with an atrium in the middle. It creates a sanctuary from the urban environment and places the visitor into an Italian villa. As a whole, the building itself is just as beautiful as the knowledge and the books it holds.

Finally, Copley is accented with the new Old South Church, a colorful High Victorian Gothic building whose tower adds to the mystique of Copley Square.

Overall, Copley is an architectural beautiful space that best represents the development and influences of American architecture. It is important, however, to not overlook the square itself. The large open space has many purposes, from hosting open air markets to creating common space for citywide celebrations. It is a gateway from the city’s outer neighborhoods into the traditional “downtown” area. It welcomes those from the T underground and greets marathon runners as they finish mile 26.2. It is unimpeded public space that people use for their own purposes: skateboarders use the fountain structure as a ramp in the winter while kids frolic in the water during the hot summer months. People from across the country visit Copley to admire its architecture while those going to work utilize its functional purposes. The Hancock is as much a destination for pleasure as it is a destination for the dreariness of work. It embodies the values of the city of Boston, that knowledge and beauty make the public a better place. It inspires people to achieve their dreams, and continues to capture the imagination of this Boston resident even after 4 years. Its magnificent buildings are a symbol of the City and tower over the landscape for miles. Its very existent is a testament to the ingenuity of Boston city planners, as it was once a literally bay before it was filled in to become land.

However, in every beauty there must be flaw. In Copley Square, it is an obvious embodiment of lavish and wealth. Surrounded by Back Bay and the gentrified South End, it is an obvious product of influence. The history of Boston shows that this neighborhood was more likely to receive investment dollars than some of the poorer neighborhoods. The central library is difficult to access for a majority of the neighborhood, and shows disparities of wealth and influence. It is almost as if to say culture and knowledge is available to the public, but only if you meet certain requirements. Indeed, this is a product of its location and its wealthy history, but it does not hide the fact that Boston has other, more neglected neighborhoods.

And this is the plight of architecture. Urban planners and designers are often trying out the next best thing, whether it is a new style of building or new layout of road. They feel free to experiment where the money is, so influential parts of the city are able to develop with new technology while the neglected neighborhoods fall into deeper neglect. South Or, if investment is focused on dilapidated areas, it often prices out longtime residents such that they can no longer afford it.

Thus, it begs the question. Can innovation, beauty, and smart design combine in an urban environment without driving out the people who matter most to the neighborhood? Can planners create a beautiful city that inspires its residents and creates opportunities for the public founded in the principles of the city beautiful? Can technology and history combine to create a modern, transit-oriented urban area in one of the oldest cities in America

There is no easy answer to this question. However, there are plenty of opportunities to test different methods in an urban lab. The Fairmount Corridor provides opportunities to create a beautiful city intended for its current residents. Transit-oriented housing in Jamaica Plain along the Orange Line has the potential to house the middle class without the need for a car. Lastly, Dudley Square is increasingly becoming a center of city and state government agencies, showing that the public sector is dedicated to the neighborhoods it serves. If these development projects can proceed and promote inclusion on the current communities, they will be considered a success.

Boston is poised to position itself as an urban laboratory, and will reap the benefits of successful implementation. Public involvement is key for these projects, and engaging relevant stakeholders should mean involving those where are already there, not those who plan to move there. Boston is best when it invests in itself; Boston is best when it invests in its people. The city can make itself more beautiful, more accessible, and more opportunistic for people of all classes, races, and ages by embracing smart development and New Urbanism. With the methods and principles in mind, Boston will reaffirm its longtime nickname as the Athens of America.