Built to Last

By: Freddy Pendleton | BSA ‘18

Architectural design is locked in an endless cycle. Every day new structures rise from the dust and debris of those that stood before. But how long can they hope to stay significant before they are crushed as well? It is a battle fought between the need for land development and the desire for preservation of the story of a place, especially in a city as layered in culture and history as Boston. Some have seen fit to unite this history with the needs of the present. Take, for instance, the Lucas in Boston’s South End; this luxury condo building is currently being erected within the carcass of the Holy Trinity German Church. Though the façade of the church still presides over SoWa, it was officially closed in 2008, deconsecrated in 2012, and will be home to eight floors of apartments come spring of 2017.

The Lucas defines an increasingly popular design strategy for adaptive reuse in which the guts of the building are removed and replaced altogether with minimalist interiors and broad expanses of glass. It is not clear, however, what quality of the structure prompts adaptive action. From a development standpoint, it would be significantly more efficient to raze it to the ground and rebuild entirely. Maybe the intention of this approach was to lessen the adverse reception of a building, whose function is not vital or desirable to the community, by ingratiating itself with the city it inhabits. It isn’t necessary to know the history of the German immigrants who built the church in the 19th century to understand that the Holy Trinity Church belongs to Boston, and could not be relocated. Architecture is a physical manifestation of the history inherent to a place, and projects like the Lucas utilize this connection to strengthen the impression that the new construction is an extension of the site, rather than an addition.

It then becomes crucial to understand the social repercussions of a landmark that outwardly defies its intended cultural role. A condominium building which visually lays claim to religious territory does predictably draw criticism from the devout and all those who find refuge in faith. In this case, however, the Holy Trinity Church hasn’t been a practicing institution for close to nine years. The fact that it has not actually served the community for a decade could be indicative of a greater cultural shift away from traditional congregational practice. In this light, the Lucas appears oddly suitable to the site as it adapts an establishment that can no longer serve the purpose it was built for in order to embrace the social values of the time.

Despite its ability to develop a strong connection to the church’s historical context, the Lucas luxury condos are not the solution to our current dilemma. For architecture to last, it must manifest itself as something that benefits the site it inhabits rather than the wallets of the developers. The cost of living in Boston is only going up, and the South End is firmly set among its most expensive neighborhoods. Erecting yet another high-end condominium building in the wake of Millennium Tower and One Dalton is decidedly not what the city needs. The opportunity to develop the Holy Trinity Church had incredible potential to respond to a culture whose values have shifted while simultaneously presenting itself as an inciter of social change. Instead, it effectively perpetuated the trend of overpriced condominiums and prohibited access to the cultural depth that made it special to all but the wealthy few. 

Maybe the Lucas is not a good example of architecture built to last. It is decidedly contemporary, and seems to lack a degree of foresight. It does, however, pose a provocative question: what if the history of a place could be more than something you observe, but rather a place we could inhabit and interact with?