Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rethinking the Office Park

For my Contemporary Architecture class this semester, every two weeks I write a response to our readings and the topics in class.  I've found the assignments interesting, so I'm sharing my writings with you.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons, en route to Boston’s North Station via the Commuter Rail, I pass by a most dreadfully soulless corporate office park in Cambridge.  I wonder who ever decided to call some unadorned brick, concrete and glass structures surrounded by a sea of asphalt in the middle of no place distinctive a “park.”  A new T station opened in the 1980s and some companies decided to plop a few mid-rise buildings nearby with little attention to context, the human scale, or any measure of livability.  Unfortunately this is the postmodern architecture, in all its blandness and lack of social consciousness.  Recently a high-end condominium developer has constructed a dense complex called CambridgePark (what else?), but why would anyone want to live there?  Sure, you have access to the T, but only if you’re willing to walk past the monster of a parking garage across the street.  The reading in our first two weeks of class that interested me the most was "Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism" by Mary McLeod for explaining this architecture. 

The link between the politics of the Reagan presidency and the postmodern architecture of the time makes a great deal of sense.  The office buildings at CambridgePark have no social vision and aspire to no universal social order other than the 9-to-5 workday of the professional.  The McLeod reading points out the spike in commercial property completions in the early eighties, enabled by the deregulation of business in America by Reagan.  At the same time, the modernist desire to provide housing for the poor waned, with fewer apartments built under the Section 8 low-income housing program each year from 1982-87.  The change in values from social aims to material aims is architecturally evident at CambridgePark as well.  Across the Alewife Brook Parkway are the Rindge Towers—high-rise public housing buildings constructed in typical modernist tower-in-a-park fashion.  Today buildings like these are plagued with rodents and roaches, but they stand for a noble aim of housing those less fortunate in a decent building with plenty of sunlight and space outdoors.   

In the Eighties, architecture was used by corporations for grabbing attention.  The office buildings of CambridgePark, while bland now, were probably considered quite slick in their day, with glass atriums and alternating horizontal bands of glass and stucco, brick, or concrete.  Companies that lacked the capital to build skyscrapers downtown could construct a larger building with an abundance of parking outside the city.  The Reagan administration, preferring a limited government approach in virtually all matters, lacked a policy to strengthen America’s cities, so the suburbs prospered.  Although the two main buildings at CambridgePark were constructed in 1985 and ’86, they lack the decoration that refers to traditional American architecture and characterizes much postmodern architecture, as also stated by Diane Ghirardo in Architecture After Modernism

I believe that this discrepancy points to a transitionary period in the 1980s into which many buildings like the CambridgePark offices exhibit the negative qualities of both modernism and postmodernism.   From modernism they take the poor urban contextualization, anonymous appearance, and lack of regional characteristics in design.  From postmodernism they take the lack of social aspiration, materialist corporatism, and meaninglessness.  While AT&T could afford to hire Philip Johnson to design his famous Chippendale-topped skyscraper for New York, most corporations could not afford such bold postmodern statements.  The result was a boring mix of modernism and postmodernism.  However, poststructrualism is creeping into the area around this corporate office “park.”  Today it’s not so sure about its identity as a single-use commercial zone.  With the new condominiums next door you can live right next to work and not miles away—so sometimes it’s a residential neighborhood.  The Alewife Bike Path connects the T station to neighboring communities, and it’s in the process of expansion—so sometimes it’s an active recreation park.  These modern-postmodern straddling buildings may soon become much more unsure about their identities and drift into the realm of the confused postmodern.

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