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The New England, Phase II

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1989, Robert A. M. Stern Architects. 222 Berkeley St.

All the pitfalls of postmodernism are evident in these two buildings, whose site occupies a full block across Boylston Street from the hulking granite headquarters of the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company (1939–1942, Cram and Ferguson). Contrived elements of classical revival coexist with artificial references to contextualism, the whole creating a cacophonous composition replete with multiple dissonances. The clients, Gerald H. Hines Interests and New England Life, had originally commissioned Philip Johnson to construct two towers, twenty and twenty-five stories high. There was an initial concern for environmental problems, but criticism has largely focused on questions of style. Johnson's symmetrical Boylston Street facade, dominated by the multistory central arch, is composed of a thin veneer of marble, granite, and factory windows, punctuated by a surfeit of ornament—balustrades, urns, and lanterns. Rose and gray pavement glistens, marking the large exedralike court. Adorned with Neo-Renaissance fountains, the plaza's composition continues the exterior symmetry and is a setting for cafés; further, it acts as an impressive passage to the building's grand lobby of black and white marble. Not favored by climatic conditions, its initial promise is fulfilled only on balmy summer days.

Controversies about Johnson's building led to a more conservative solution for the adjacent structure. Robert A. M. Stern submitted a historicist design, whose materials—red brick and cast stone—and tripartite division are a conscious attempt to harmonize with more traditional Back Bay architecture. The skylit winter garden provides a substantial, protected public space. Probably the most successful aspect of Stern's building was the oversized teddy bear at the corner of Boylston and Berkeley streets, which provided a perfect tourist photo-op as well as an imposing advertisement for the building's ground floor toy emporium, FAO Schwarz (until its closing in 2004).

Writing Credits

Author: 
Keith N. Morgan

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