Webb Nichols | Writing Samples
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33 Arch Street is a sophisticated and refined project. The 33 Arch Street project is also out of place in Boston, not so much because its 400 foot all glass tower remains a contradiction to the essential character of the city, a city with office towers already scattered throughout the downtown, but because the design solution neither minimizes the adverse effects of tall buildings nor responds sympathetically to the Midtown Cultural District Plan which set forth the general requirements for this site.


Approved by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and its advisory body, the Boston Civic Design Commission, and the Boston Zoning Commission, the design stands poised and ready to take its place on the edge of the financial district.


The gulf between the intentions of the Midtown Cultural District Plan and the proposed design for 33 Arch Street, given the skill of the architect and the lessons one could derive from the success and failure of recent projects in the city, suggest a lack of rigor and critical thinking on the part of all those involved in the design and approval process. The project can be seen less as a statement about the architect and the developer and more as a statement about Boston, its present culture, and the people who are shaping its physical and public realm.


Architecture is ultimately an art of the senses. It is important to separate a building from its rhetoric and its technology and look at it for what it is. In the final analysis, architecture is that which we give a building beyond its functional and environmental necessities. Architecture is seen. it is touched. And it is felt.  It is in this realm that judgment will ultimately reside.


The 33 Arch Street project reorganizes and activates the interior of an existing city block, opening up a dead end street and alleyway to pedestrian through traffic and creating narrow  pedestrian walkways between the exposed backs of existing buildings and the project’s tower.


The tower, the contradictory element of the project, is characterized by subtle modulation of its surface, using varying types of glass and intricately and delicately designed support framing.


In exploring the reality of a project, it is useful to examine the project’s argument, hopefully, the most persuasive (and relevant) statement of intention available, and , in this case, compare it to the Midtown Cultural District Plan, a persuasive statement of expectation . More than generous in its allowance for development, the Midtown Cultural District Plan still conveys a logic and sensitivity, particularly in its methods of minimizing the adverse effects of new development.


The argument for 33 Arch Street is set forth in the Architect’s Schematic Design Submission to the Boston Civic Design Commission in April 1998. The Midtown Cultural District Plan which the Architect states continues to govern his project, was completed in 1988.


In the Schematic Design Submission, 33 Arch Street is described as a 24 story transparent glass tower attached to the old Woolworth’s Building, an existing structure which has six levels  of parking stacked above three floors of above-grade rentable space. The tower  is “ a counterpoint to other grand but opaque Boston Landmarks”. “ Mutable, evanescent, almost atmospheric”, the architect goes on to liken its architecture to “ an extension of the Romantic Tradition in which generations of inspired American artists, particularly such ‘Luminist’ New England-born masters as painters Fitz Hugh Lane, Frederick Church and the great Winslow Homer, have employed their mediums to celebrate the nation’s landscape”, asserting later, that ‘when sunlight rakes across Boston early or late in the day,” the tower ,”will become a bright shaft of disembodied reflection, and at “ high noon or the arrival of evening”, will appear nearly transparent, animating the neighborhood with views into its active interior”.


At street level, defined by “a sensual application of glass and nearly invisible, pale silver steel “, an “airy public entrance hall will encourage the natural flow of human traffic” and“ will regulate sun and shade” to allow a  passerby to see within.


The project will result from “ the intense study of wind and sun” and will reflect concern for the “ urban streetscape”.


The architect further notes that “buildings marked by design excellence are connected to their surroundings and embody the culture of the place they inhabit”.


[Right or wrong, when technology made them possible, tall buildings have generally been chosen as the solution to social and economic needs and pressures in Boston, as they were in most industrial cities.


From the beginning, some have understood that tall buildings were a particular contradiction in Boston, given the unique quality of its fully articulated and historic urban character at the end of the 19th Century, defined predominantly by a lattice of narrow streets and low buildings of distinguished and consistent character and very different from cities built on a uniform street grid, like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, where  view corridors and a sense of light and air were also more assured.(Fig.1)


Social and economic needs provide a framework within which the life of a city takes place but not its meaning. For that reason, critics often set aside the economic imperative and focus on its aesthetic and environmental conditions, examining, in the case of a single building, its two major presentations – its place in the skyline and its place as part of the pedestrian experience.


Christian Norberg-Schulz observes in his book Genius Loci- Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture ,”Boston today appears a hybrid city; the old remains, such as Beacon Hill, make the new buildings look inhuman and ridiculous, and the new structures have a crushing effect on the old environment, not only because of scale, but because of their total lack of architectural character.” (Fig.2)


Because tall buildings distort human scale at their base, create wind, cut off sunlight and reduce daylight and increase traffic, if served by automobiles, communities have sought strategies, involving building placement, shape, and materials, to minimize these adverse impacts.


The 33 Arch Street tower is too tall. Although set back on three sides from adjacent streets and within the heights allowed by zoning. the maximum has become the minimum. Over 400 feet in height, the tower is far above the design height of 225 feet recommended and shown in the Midtown Cultural Plan. The plan’s intention is to “ introduce a new intermediate building scale (height and massing) in the city’s skyline that serves as a transitional element between the financial district and the horizontal massing of historic Boston building.” (Fig.2, 3)


Instead of being part of the only reasonable strategy able to minimize the tension between old and new Boston, 33 Arch Street is moving the edge of the financial district westward and expanding the domain of high rise office towers.(Fig.4)


The size of the floors in the tower, each over 23,000 SF, are too large, making the tower appear particularly bulky and massive. In contrast, floor areas of  5,000 to 18,000 SF are being used in downtown San Francisco to preserve sun and daylight. The shallower depth between the core and the edge of the building have yielded higher rents per SFand made the smaller structures profitable, particularly  as the demand by business for large floor plates has dropped off.


A critical portion of the project, the side of the tower  which stands at the edge of Arch Street and contains the most important of the tower’s three street level entrances, would violate the accepted daylighting/ set back regulations of Midtown New York and the recommended Solar Radiation/ Sun Access Requirements of San Francisco. With the narrow twisting streets and blocked view corridors in Boston, buildings should meet even more stringent requirements to insure sunlight let alone a sense of light and air. When you address sun and daylight be stepping back the building, you also address wind.(Fig.5)


At this critical location on Arch Street, pedestrians, ironically, will experience the most adverse physical and environmental effects of the tower. Although wind tunnel tests indicate that due to the location and protection of nearby high rise office buildings, the tower will only increase current winds from an average of 0- 5 to an average of 15 mph at the base and will contribute to a reduction in wind at other street corners, it is at the tower’s entrances and in the adjacent alleyways that gusting winds will be highest and sun radiation least, a context where the lack of direct sun light and a slight increase in wind can alter the environment dramatically and create discomfort.


Making a tall building a ‘counter point’ in Boston was a minimizing strategy first employed in the design of the John Hancock building, a 780 foot reflective glass tower which was intended to mirror its context, dematerialize, and, hopefully, go away. Other all glass and reflective towers have been built. Far less sophisticated and convincing as objects, they have not vanished nor enhanced their context but also remain, jarring interventions in the fabric and environment of the city.


The  strategy to reduce 33 Arch Street’s impact by making the tower transparent is suspect. It can happen only during periods of diminished light when light levels are higher in the building than outside and only where it is possible to look horizontally into the building and only as far as the nearest interior partition or other obstruction.


From the street, given the viewing  angles, when the glass is not reflective, the inside of the building will be obscured by the ceiling of each successive floor as they extend to the edge of the building.(Fig.6)


The architect’s reference to the Romantic Tradition and the luminist painters seems in fact to be more literal than phenomenal. Does he want us to believe that in placing a” glittering or almost vanishing”  object in the “grandeur of the urban landscape of Boston”, he has employed architecture as they employed paint ?


Because the luminist painters were so different from each other in style and Boston at night is already full of glittering objects, it seems more reasonable to adopt the luminists shared sense of sensationalism and theater for 33 Arch Street.


Given the unique conditions and clear instructions for this site, what could be more sensational, theatrical, or romantic than to adhere to an all glass tower in the context of Boston?


The Midtown Cultural District Plan states that “facade designs that are sympathetic to the historic character of the district will enhance the quality of the area’s public realm and the pedestrian experience of the street, and “new building will reflect the historic massing and design of the district blocks and buildings.”


33 Arch Street is a glass tower which rises uniformly without any setbacks from the ground to its horizontal top, as it must, to carry out its minimalist obligations as pure object.


Except for changes in glass, the Tower does not respond to the vertical layering of context. At the street, the scale and continuity  of the surrounding buildings is not reinforced( in the creation of a street wall plane of public human scale) , the middle portion of the tower does not recognize the domain it shares with the surrounding high rise office buildings ( in the creation of a tower wall plane recognizing a civic scale of city design), and its broad flat horizontal top  does little as a terminus to animate either the surrounding space or the skyline.


The gentle curves and vague shape of the base and the tower, the sheerness of its surfaces, the various types of glass, and the shallow, brittle, and inconspicuous nature of the metal which frames and supports the enclosing walls, all, reinforce the tower’s sense of nakedness, softness, and vulnerability.


Unlike stone and brick, glass will either reflect or emit light, it will not capture and hold light to enliven its surface. It has been argued rather convincingly that Boston could have rescued its hybrid skyline by agreeing to use a limited palette of materials and colors which matched those of the old city, creating chromatic continuity and inspiring in projects, the design of small scale manipulations for visual interest and differentiation.


At 33 Arch Street, the dominance of industrial parts and total absence of native materials increases the tower’s sense of anonymity rather than connection and raises the question as to whether the tower will stand up to the power and character of the surrounding buildings and hold its own at any point from the base to its top.


In the end, It hardly seems that the 33 Arch Street Tower is “connected to its surroundings or embodies the culture of the place its inhabits”, the stated philosophy of the architect.’ It feels more like the primacy of economics and a limited aesthetic argument over environmental conditions and looks less like the result of holistic calculus and soul searching.


This sophisticated tower should be in a place where the language of all glass objects is spoken with conviction and purpose.


We build our beliefs and we appear in Boston to lack the commitment, understanding, discipline, and rigor to maintain environmental standards and inspire and insure appropriate design in order to minimize the adverse effects of the inevitable tall building. (Published 1999)


Each city has a unique physical and spiritual identity. During its life, every city grows in a particular pattern and develops a specific visual and spatial character, a fabric. If the growth is appropriate to the site, the environmental conditions and the needs of the inhabitants, it will enhance the life of the people dwelling there. This fabric defines a public realm. It is the world that surrounds us in a city, the space that is shaped and articulated by its buildings, streets, monuments, landscaping and all other manmade artifacts; it is the space that is truly public, experienced and shared by all.


The city is a settlement, a unique and individual place, a dwelling with streets and squares as passages and rooms which can be balanced, self-nurturing and imageable, capable of providing as sense of place within itself and the outside world. The design of the city is the design of the public realm in response to the social and economic needs of the time. Its form is both the result of the multiplicity of decisions and intentions and the “pitiless indicator of the state of our civilization” (1)


With each settlement we replace the natural world with a man-made landscape meeting our needs for food, shelter, places to work and play, and space for both sacred and secular communion. We are moved to build for socio-economic reasons, to promote the exchange of goods and services, to bring together in one place resources for many which few could buy alone and to give ourselves the freedom of choice, accessibility and the opportunity for material and spiritual gain. The results of this labor, the architecture and urban design, become a permanent visual legacy for both ourselves and those who will follow us.


The public realm of a city speaks to our aspirations and values, our desire for beauty and self-expression; it is a measure of our commitment and responsibility to ourselves and each other.


The public realm can promote the coherent and orderly inter-connection and linking of separate neighborhoods, spaces and activities. It can both tie the city together and give us a sense of place [both] in space and time. It can ground our activity in a humane context of cultural and historical forms and symbols, giving our own personal experience meaning and perspective. It can promote self -expression and communication, provide      physical safety and the environmental benefits of clean air, sunlight, shelter from noise and wind. It can provide visual and emotional stimulation. In telling us about ourselves, it   is both a link with our past and a bridge to the future.


The public realm of Boston is as varied as its street pattern suggests. (2) Both the good and bad qualities of its separate neighborhoods are often due as much to neglect or political protection as to careful planning and design. Both the growth and the decay of Boston reflect the changing attitudes of its citizens and the public and private interpretation of their social and economic needs. (Published in 1984)


  • Edmund N. Bacon, Design of Cities , New York 1967
  • See attached street plan drawing: The Public Realm- Patterns of Growth, taken from a BRA Map circa 1960


Today, if you wish to serve your country. The toughest duty outside of combat is not the Army, Air Force or Marines. It is the Peace Corps. If those who serve in Guinea, West Africa, are representative of all those who still ask ‘ what they can do for their country’. the Peace Corps has no equal.


You show up for work alone on your first day in a broken down taxi after a hair raising and dangerous ride from the nearest official taxi station 30 to 80 miles away. There often is no one to greet you. Your site and new home for two years is, more often then not, a remote village buried in the jungle and cut off from the outside world.


For two years your transportation will be these taxis along with flat bed trucks and lorries over loaded with people and their livestock, construction materials, food, and every other imaginable artifact necessary for human existence. With the exception of your bicycle, or an occasional government, ex-patriot, or private vehicle, you are doomed to travel this way, regardless of circumstance or desire.


Your taxi, held together by faith and bailing wire and condemned by life and circumstances to be without windows, door and window knobs, paneling, locks, and dashboards, had by some miracle of science and ingenuity achieved speeds which often lead to its and its passengers demise. The rusting metal carcasses strewn beside Guinea’s roads remain grim totems of such events.


Miscalculation, arrogance, or ignorance, it is difficult to understand what motivates a driver to pass on an outside corner, blind to oncoming traffic, with the winding road dropping steeply, precipitously into the dark night or a green steaming sun drenched jungle valley below.


Smoke billowing from its exhaust, your taxi and its resolute driver, employing a chorus of incessant staccato-like honking, had negotiated the winding twisting roads, navigated and brushed back cattle, sheep, and goats, men, women, and children straying, aimlessly , endlessly along the road.


Now you will live, sometimes for months in this village without electricity, running water, or telephones. You will talk with your hosts, the villagers, in their native language and sometimes be dismayed when they appear not to understand you. You will long for someone who speaks English, even just a few words.


You eat what everyone else eats. You are to ‘live at the level of the local population’. You learn to forage for food in the village marketplace. Friendly villagers often bring you food- rice and peanut sauce, sometimes potatoes. You often bring them back food they do not have from the marketplaces of other villages and towns where fruits and vegetables may be more plentiful. Peace Corps issued vitamins are crucial for rice and sauce may be breakfast, lunch, and dinner, day after day, week after week.


For the gourmet, The Peace Corps cookbook has recipes for termites and grubs. Cravings for other foods become obsessions leading to extreme plans- a two hour bike ride to visit another volunteer in another village who you believe has some cookies or candies, for a 32 km ride over rutted jungle foot trails is just ‘Going next door for a cup of sugar’. You play the ‘food game’ enthusiastically and painfully with other volunteers, listing all the things you would like to have, right here, right now. Your diet would not be permitted in the Armed Forces for 24 hours, even in combat. Your lifestyle would trigger a Congressional investigation.


In the village there are no mobile kitchens, no latrines, and no mobile showers. Your latrine will be a deep hole with a concrete cover open to the sky and your shower is a bucket. You will pump water from a well. You fend for yourself. You live and work in the burning sun and the half-light of your house or thatch hut. Windows closed, hiding from the heat, you cook, wash,, read, and write by candle light, day and night.


Always watchful for mosquitoes, you search your body for signs of infection, worms that bore into your body, that you can then watch crawl underneath your skin, worms that look like simple sores whose breathing holes must be covered with vaseline so they suffocate and die. Disease and infection lie in the water of the rivers, ponds, and stagnate puddles, on footpaths and dirt roads, on people, in the grass, and in the air.

Your last refuge is you bed and the safety of its mosquito net, for it is not only your last defense against malaria carrying mosquitoes, but interested spiders, vermin, and snakes.


You catch diseases no one can diagnose, often lying on that same bed for days, medicating yourself, watching your temperature soar. Dehydration is always close by.


There is no medevac unless it is life threatening and word has reached the outside. No one knows you are sick. If taken to a local hospital, you fight against IV’s and surgery. The disease you have, you are almost certain may be better than the cure.


Peace Corps Volunteers come in many sizes and shapes. There are no uniforms. For them each site will be different from teaching in cities to assisting in development projects and public health in the villages.


No one can truly know the volunteer’s experience- frustration, joy, anger, fatigue, fear, relief, failure and success. It seems whatever the conditions, whatever the circumstances, they find a way to rise to the occasion, working, eating, sleeping, traveling in a foreign country that becomes home And being ambassadors in a world where their hosts often ask, incredulously -” why would you do this for us?” (Published 13 April 1997)