Noble architecture makes Boston a living work of art. Visitors flock to view Bulfinch's State House, Richardson's Trinity Church, and McKim's Copley Square Library, to name just the obvious.
Although the concentration is not as intense as downtown, the riches extend through Boston's neighborhoods. The Gothic magnificence of Dorchester's All Saints Church, the stalwart domesticity of the half-timbered townhouses along Roxbury's Harriswood Crescent, and the classically columned dignity of Hyde Park's branch library all enrich the fabric of daily life.
Because Boston is an old city — ancient by American standards — it tends to undervalue its modern masterpieces. City Hall is a case in point. Its neo-Aztec bulk is admired around the world, but is too little appreciated at home. And even I.M. Pei's sleek, mirrored, geometric riddle of a tower (still called the Hancock by natives) is more accepted than esteemed.
Now one of Boston's other Modernist jewels, the reflecting pool at the Christian Science Center (also by Pei, with the aid of Araldo Cossutta), is threatened with assault.
Plans under consideration call for raising the bottom of the pool from 28 inches to 12 and bisecting the vast and impressive plane of water with a walkway.
This is the equivalent of cultural vandalism.
At a glance, this may not seem like much. But as any architect worth his or her salt will attest, God is in the details.
Making the pool shallower, in the opinion of Cossutta, will turn will turn it into a swamp. He recently told the Boston Globe, "This is a ridiculous idea. It has been tried out in some projects; I saw one in France, where the pool is very shallow, and it becomes sewerage, mostly, because of all the pollution in the air. It becomes a mud pool, not a water pool."
Decreasing the pool's depth would also be an aesthetic affront, compromising the effect of the mass, robbing the water of its sense of mystery, and destroying the surreal dignity it brings to the urban landscape near the intersections of Huntington and Massachusetts avenues.
To be fair, Cossutta does not oppose construction of the walkway. But it is difficult to escape the impression that this is only the lesser of two potential evils.
The proposed walkway is an abomination disguised as a convenience. The power of the reflecting pool is its size. The fact that pedestrians must accommodate themselves to it is very much the point.
As is the case with many great institutions, the Christian Science Church is under financial pressure. To ease the strain, the church is planning to build, with private developers, a tower and two other buildings nearby. Substantial space on existing church property has already been leased to commercial tenants. Neighboring Northeastern University is said to be considering establishing a satellite campus on the church grounds.
With this in mind, it is hard to see how some responsible change to the existing plaza, which has become over the decades a beloved public space, can be avoided.
In 2007, a group of citizens including dozens of architects petitioned the city to have the plaza named a public landmark. The Phoenix urges the granting of such status as the surest way to protect the reflecting pool, which should be recognized for what it is — an important and vital piece of public art.
Recasting the pool would be akin to rewriting one of Shakespeare's sonnets, which would not be countenanced under any circumstances.