In Praise of the Hard: I.M. Pei's Christian Science Church Complex Threatened
First Church of Christ, Boston. By: Katherine Hala, courtesy of Sacred Destinations
There is something to be said for grandeur. There is even something to be said about the kind of overscaled, geometric abstraction that rulers once opened up in cities and that bureaucrats revived during the height of the hubris of the Great Society. I was reminded of this yesterday when I sauntered by the Christian Science Church headquarters in Boston. Its plaza, dominated by a pool of water that seeks to reach infinity within the confines of an urban setting, and framed on one side by a colonnade of a rigor that belies the complexity of that context, is a moment of senseless beauty. It is also under threat, as the Church and developers see it for what it is: a glorious waste of space.
The Colonnade Building, as it is aptly called, used to house the Church’s administrative offices, as well as recording studies. Opened in 1972, it is now leased out to neighboring colleges. Seen from across the plaza, it is a line of concrete planes, slanted to mimic Huntington Avenue diagonal, and interrupted by arched openings. A bull-nosed cornice curves over what looks like a small attic, completing the image of the building as an abstraction of Baroque architecture without a plinth below or symplegma above. The overhang also leads your eye past the original Mother Church to the Auditorium, a semi-circular behemoth that anchors the plaza’s western edge.
The fourth piece in the composition is the 26-story Administration Building, which the Church still occupies. Finished a year after the Colonnade Building, its grid and eccentric placement echoes the other episodic skyscrapers in the Back Bay, most notably the Prudential and Hancock Towers. It is by far the most elegantly proportioned and detailed of these, but again unrelenting in its order. I.M. Pei was good at these kind of things, as the University Towers in New York show—and those are also under threat of redevelopment and diminution through addition.
The Plaza itself consists of the pool, set in a sea of travertine with a row of small trees in raised planters screening off Huntington Avenue. It has few of the kind of amenities we now think of as as absolutely necessary for public spaces. There is little shade beyond the trees, no soft surfaces, no cafes, no elements that bring the scale down the level of kids playing with balloons that populate renderings of such spaces. It is hardscape at its hardest.
It is this very quality that makes the ensemble so great It is heroic, speaking of the ideals of order and the belief in something that surpasses the quotidian. Whether or not you are sympathetic to the Church’s beliefs, and I am not, you cannot help but be impressed by its willingness and ability to create something that is so "other," so beyond urban reason, that it offers a clear alternative to the messiness and confusion of daily life. What’s more, it is not a simple order, as it is made of four fragments around a space without a center, and each of the elements breaks down into at least two different geometric systems and a series of overscaled elements that are almost surreal in their abstraction in function and form.
Now the Christian Science Church wants to make the place normal, integrating it into the city by lining Huntington with buildings from which it will derive income and cutting the pool with a walkway to improve circulation. It is all very logical, and it will ruin this great void. I know it will happen, but I would like to have faith that we can preserve a few such useless spaces of absence and absurd order in our cities. To do so, we might have to make the hard choice to keep and enjoy the hard.