Monday, June 1, 2009

Allston Skyline (2): compatible neighbors

Viewed from Allston, Peabody Terrace sets a high standard for what a riverside building should be or do. The scale is monumental, with hulking vertical and horizontal structures laid out in stone-gray concrete . And yet the details of balconies and windows are perfectly vernacular and village-like, decorative and domesticated at the same time. Peabody is the chef-d'oeuvre--locally at least--of José Luis Sert, the great Catalan architect (and dean of Harvard's design school). With its Mondrian-like boxes of shape and color, the effect is to humanize the modern and make it liveable (as Peabody Terrace has been, by most accounts, for more than four decades). The prominence of the design, projected over the flat expanses of riverway, is spectacular. 

Its neighbor directly across the river, the Harvard graduate dorm known as One Western Avenue, makes a worthy homage and pendant to Sert's achievement. Designed by the same Machado and Silvetti (Sert's successors at Harvard's GSD) who built our prize-winning Allston library, the much-belabored One Western matches Peabody Terrace not just in size but in its use of large vertical and horizontal blocks. While One Western's actual texture of patterned brick and randomized window placement fails to please my eye to the same degree as Sert's colored panels and balconies, the drama of the elevated horizontal wing, like a tower laid on its side to frame an open courtyard, more than compensates in visual interest. Most importantly, the similarities in shape communicate across the river like neighbors talking over a fence (as Robert Campbell might say), bringing coherence to this stretch of the riverway we in Allston share with Cambridge. 

Oddly enough both buildings have excited voluble opposition: out of sympathy, in the case of Peabody Terrace, for the Riverside neighborhood it displaced, or aversion to such incongruous effects as One Western's anti-gravitational illusion (and to be frank, cheap materials). Personally, I feel enriched every day my  biking, running, or walking path takes me past these buildings and their blue-collar neighbors, the Genzyme factory and the Western Avenue power plant. They do what big buildings on conspicuous sites are meant to do: make me feel like my neighborhood is something special.   

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