A Building So Majestic…

Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center

2008, Dr. Sami Angawi; Steffian Bradley Architects; Sasaki Associates. 100 Malcolm X Boulevard, Roxbury

The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center

The Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center

An iconic architectural landmark in Boston since its inception, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) incorporates traditional Boston architecture while adhering to the symbolism and traditions of Islamic design. Designed by a team of architects led by Dr. Sami Angawi, a former fellow of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University and founder of the AMAR Center for International Architecture in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the ISBCC in Roxbury at a cost of $15.6 million and 15 years later remains an unfinished work.

Located in Roxbury, Boston’s largest predominantly Black neighborhood, the ISBCC is characterized by its massive proportions, towering over the campus of the adjacent Roxbury Community College and Roxbury Crossing T-Station. Its multi-cubic pyramid like composition, with the minaret at its western end and a dome to its east, visually and symbolically convey the journey every Muslim ideally goes on at least once in their lifetime to Mecca. Constructed of brick and sandstone, the mosque blends comfortably into its surroundings. A belt course borrowed from surrounding buildings emphasizes the mosque’s horizontality, while the minaret reaches for the heavens and makes a direct connection with the towers of The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Mission Church) which is seen at a distance from the mosque. The belt course, the intrados and the abutment of its pointed arches were meant to be adorned with colorful mosaic work and calligraphic inscriptions from the Koran; however, due to budgetary and legal constraints these details remain unfinished.

Considered one of the most controversial new buildings in Boston within the last 10 years, the officials in charge of building the ISBCC have been accused of sympathizing with Islamic extremists groups as well as obtaining funds from Al Qaida for its construction. In addition, the land which was valued at $401,187 was purchased from the Boston Redevelopment Authority for $175,000 with the requirements that ISBCC would establish a library accessible to the public and maintain two parks surrounding the Center. The sale of the land was a highly debated issue among several groups, and some community residents opposed the low price tag for the purpose of building a mosque. The controversies that surround the ISBCC have obscured the positive impact that the Center has brought to the community. It has revitalized a corner of Roxbury once in dire need of economic and cultural prosperity.

View looking east

View looking east

As it stands, the center can accommodate up to 5,000 users at one time and in addition to the library, it includes conference and office spaces, underground parking for 100 automobiles and facilities for washing and preparing the deceased for burial. What remains to be built is a school with 17 additional classrooms. The ISBCC has not only become an iconic building in the city, but also a symbol of Boston’s ethnically-diverse communities, a building so majestic that once completed will be considered the pride of Boston and New England.

Moving Boston Backward…

Daniel H. Burnham's Filene's Building

Daniel H. Burnham's Filene's Building

If you live in Boston, you’re witnessing history unfold right before your eyes. This November, Bostonians head to the polls to elect a new City Mayor. For the last 16 years, Boston has had but one Mayor, Thomas Menino, who is running for re-election with the slogan “Moving Boston Forward.”

Mayor Menino, correct me if I am wrong, but shouldn’t your slogan read “Moving Boston Backward”?

The Mayor’s plans to revitalize the city have gone bust! Development projects here and there have stopped completely and the demolition of buildings continue to move forward. “Urban Removal” anyone?

Downtown Crossing, known as the “heart of Boston” has seen its share of a poorly implemented plan to revitalize the area. Daniel Burnham’s only building in Boston, the Filene’s Building has been at the center of this plan.  The heart of Boston has stopped beating to the rhythms of a vibrant city shopping life with the recent demolition of the addition to Burnham’s masterpiece. This has been the declivity of Downtown Crossing. Storefronts after storefronts remain vacant, announcing to the world the end of a once thriving shopping district.

The streets in Downtown Crossing are flooded daily with high school dropouts or soon to be dropouts yelling obscenities at each other, showing off their latest Air Jordan and Nike sneakers as if to pretend they can afford to buy them.  Even tourists are staying away from Downtown Crossing.

Downtown Crossing is decaying.  Around the corner from this disaster, a new high rise, very expensive condominium tower was recently completed, but from what I hear, sales are down. Who knew? Who wants to live in an area where there isn’t much happening especially in this gloomy economy?!

To the future Mayor of Boston: Please move Boston forward, eradicate the word demolition off your agenda, and stop demolishing  buildings to construct new ones for expensive condominiums that the middle class cannot even afford.  Stop creating more blight, Boston does not need any more of it!

Decaying Downtown Crossing

Decaying Downtown Crossing

Buildings Tell a Story

In Boston, there are two buildings that tell the greatest success story of all: The Achmuty “Dainty Dot” Building in Chinatown/Leather District and the former Shreve, Crump and Low Building in the Back Bay. The stories, aspirations, goals and dreams of those who commissioned, designed and built these structures, as well as the workers who experienced their interiors, are all reflected in the exquisite details of these buildings.

The Achmuty "Dainty Dot" Building

The Achmuty "Dainty Dot" Building (1889-1890)

The “Dainty Dot” Building takes it name from its last occupant, the Dainty Dot Hosiery Company, however throughout its history, it has been the home to several of Boston’s textile companies. The physical scars of the Achmuty “Dainty Dot” Building tell the story of Boston in the 1960’s and the construction of the Central Artery Tunnel, a massive urban infrastructure project which demolished two of its façades.  This handsome Romanesque Revival building tells the story of the rebuilding of Boston after the devastating fire of 1872, which destroyed a large section of downtown Boston. The “Dainty Dot” also tells the story of Winslow and Wetherell, one of the largest architectural firms of the time whose works reflected the influence of Henry Hobson Richardson, in particular the bold Romanesque arches and nature inspired architectural decoration. Last but not least, the building also tells the story those immigrants who worked long arduous hours in hopes of claiming a piece of the “American Dream”.

The "Dainty Dot" Building

The "Dainty Dot" Building

The “American Dream” also plays a role in the development of architecture in Boston, especially in the former Shreve, Crump and Low building in the Back Bay. The story of one of Boston’s most celebrated Art Deco buildings is told through its highly ornate façade, designed in 1929-1930 by William T. Aldrich, a classically trained architect at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology[1]. An outstanding example of Art Deco in Boston, its façade incorporates Art Deco and Neoclassical motifs in the form of half shells, flowers, leaves and knot designs. These details allude to the history of America’s oldest jewelry company. The building also tells the story of countless men and women who have created memories and special moments with the purchase of a piece of jewelry from this prestigious firm.

Shreve Crump & Low Building

Shreve Crump & Low Building

 

Another common thread  that these two buildings share is the threat of demolition, which will silence and erase their stories and rich contribution to Boston’s urban fabric. The Achmuty “Dainty Dot” Building and the former Shreve, Crump and Low Building are both slated for demolition in spite of the efforts of preservationists and citizens who fought a tireless battle to designate these two structures as Boston Landmarks. The petitions to designate such buildings as landmarks were denied but thanks to the worsening economy, further plans for demolition have been put on hold, allowing their stories to continue to be told.

Shreve Crump & Low Building - Detail of ornamentation

Shreve Crump & Low Building - Detail of ornamentation

Shreve Crump & Low - Iron work

Shreve Crump & Low - Iron work

 


[1] Robert B. MacKay, Long Island Country Houses and their Architects, 1860-1940 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company 1997) 48

Why Boston City Hall Matters Today More Than Ever

Boston's Iconic City Hall

Boston's Iconic City Hall

Everyone who lives or visits Boston has formulated an opinion on Boston City Hall based on their interactions with the building. In recent years, there has been much debate over the future of one of Boston’s most iconic works of architecture, primarily fueled by Mayor Thomas Menino’s desire to sell the current building and construct a new one on South Boston’s Waterfront. Menino’s wishes has ignited the passions of preservationists, architects, students, and citizens who have found more than one reason to advocate on behalf of Boston City Hall and the people it stood and stands for.

Designed in 1961-1968 by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles with Campbell, Aldrich, and Nulty, Boston City Hall will turn 50 in 2011, the magic number dictated by the National Park Service for it to be recognized as a National Historic Landmark. A National Historic Landmark is the official designation by the United States Government of a building, place, or object as possessing an extremely historical significant and cultural value for all Americans. There are some exceptions to this rule, but the mere fact that Boston City Hall turns 50 in two years is an occasion for celebration. I will be celebrating and rejoicing throughout the monumental plaza it faces as the world once looked to Modernist Boston for architectural inspiration.

Boston’s Brutalist monument to city government was designed and built during the Urban Renewal, an era that saw many sections of cities as unfit to live in, resulting in the demolition of neighborhoods and important works of architecture. New construction was thought of as giving new life to cities and putting an end to their plight. Government Center, the area where Boston City Hall is situated was known as the West End, a neighborhood with an architectural character reminiscent of Beacon Hill. A major part of the West End was razed, displacing people from their homes. The demolition of the West End along with its history was erased to make way for the buildings that stand today. Government Center, as the name suggests, is home to many of the city’s government buildings and offices. Boston City Hall is symbolic of the history of the neighborhood that was demolished and of the future of Boston. The thought of demolishing City Hall brings chills to my spine for this act to me is like re-erasing the history of the people of Boston and of what was once the vibrant neighborhood of the West End.

Like Trinity Church which gave Boston a place in the world of architecture, Boston City Hall gave the city an edge over others in modern architecture. Its groundbreaking design inspired by the works of Le Corbusier was executed in concrete, brick and glass. City Hall has inspired countless of other buildings in the city and in the country, and for this matter alone, it deserves to be respected and celebrated!

Is it intimidating? You bet! Harsh? Unfriendly? Of course! Boston City Hall makes people react to it, it makes people talk and express their emotions and feelings. It makes people think, stop and take a second look at its forms and angularity. It’s intimidating; it makes people feel small and aware of the powerful government that looms over its citizens. Boston City Hall has grown on me. I’ve come to appreciate it for what it is, a great work of art and nothing less.

City Hall brought international fame and numerous accolades to Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles, just like Trinity Church brought an illustrious, internationally acclaimed career to Henry Hobson Richardson. Trinity Church and Boston City Hall are both a product of their time, reflecting the culture that gave birth these architectural masterpieces.

At a time when great modernist works of architecture are being demolished or threatened with demolition or insensitive redevelopment, we as stewards of our built environment must become aware of the transcending power of modernist architecture. It makes sense to leave Boston City Hall where it is today for it is the diamond among other fine jewels of modern architecture in Government Center and Boston.