I.M. Pei's beautifully restrained Christian Science plaza, showcasing Araldo Cossutta's sensuously severe reflecting pool, is one of Boston's architectural jewels.
Together with the neo-Aztec mass of City Hall and the shimmering thrust of the Hancock tower, the Christian Science plaza is among Boston's modernist masterpieces.
In the coming weeks, initial plans by the Christian Science Church to develop the plaza will be reviewed by a citizens advisory committee of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). This is the next step in an intricate process intended to balance the project's commercial viability with the public interest.
A year ago, the plaza won landmark status from the city. This award was justifiably hailed by the Boston Preservation Alliance, as well as forward-thinking architects, academics, and historians who have been working to ensure that the inevitable development of the plaza embodies the deep spirit and high aesthetic of the original masterminds.
During the intervening months, the BRA and its advisors have sifted through reams of public comments on preliminary plans. Yet despite all of the input, there has been an almost distressing lack of feedback from the advisors.
As unsettling as this may be, it should come as no surprise. Boston is a contentious city. Naysaying is an art form. And experienced inside players are well-schooled in keeping the public guessing.
As the citizen advisors prepare to render their opinion to the BRA, they should keep three things in mind.
First, Cossutta's magnificent pool is the soul of Pei's achievement. Its transcendent presence ennobles not only the plaza and the whole of the Christian Science complex, but also enriches the entire surrounding neighborhood. Talk of traversing the pool with a walkway must be resisted. It would be an aesthetic outrage, akin to the spiritual violation of establishing a fast-food stand in the foyer of Mary Baker Eddy's mother church.
Second, the church's current scheme calls for an additional 950,000 square feet of office space for commercial use. Existing zoning allows for only 650,000, so the balance of 300,000 square feet must receive zoning approval. Some in the community are concerned that this is too much — that the brownstone scale of the immediate South End streets would be forever violated.
It is an understandable worry. The issue, however, is less about square footage and more about how this space is distributed. The idea of constructing a tower at the Mass Ave end of the parcel would be a mistake. Such construction would destroy the ambience created by the interplay of the Beaux Arts Horticultural Hall and the 20th-century Sunday School building. The striking yet harmonious balance of these two distinct architectural styles across the street from venerable Symphony Hall is among the wonders of the local cityscape.
Rather than perpetuate an outrage on the Symphony neighborhood, it would make the most sense to scale back the plans for the Mass Ave end of the plaza and redistribute the footage so that the proposed towers nearer the Prudential Center accommodate more space. It is, perhaps, a way for all parties to have their cake and eat it, too.