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Rudolph Building, Eyed for Piano Skyscraper, Gets Temporary Stay of Execution

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Rendering © Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

Image © Chris Mottalini.


Paul Rudolph’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building, labeled one of the most controversial structures in the U.S. when it opened in 1960, is making headlines again. The Boston Landmarks Commission voted earlier this week to delay the building’s demolition, which the owner is seeking so that it can construct an 80-story office tower, New England’s tallest, designed by Renzo Piano.

Rudolph’s design is recognized as a significant step in the evolution of Modernism. The precast concrete ribs in its facade bucked the then-prevalent International Style aesthetic of steel and glass. Although its iconoclastic looks initially attracted criticism, the 13-story structure also drew praise for sensitively matching the scale and character of its downtown context. Developer Steve Belkin’s Trans National Properties plans to construct a 1,000-foot-high tower on its site. Preliminary designs include a rooftop garden and sun reflectors to mitigate shadows.

Preservationists at a public hearing on Tuesday criticized what they characterize as a rush to demolish Rudolph’s building. They noted that the proposed tower faces a long permitting process with no guarantees it will be constructed.

The new building resulted from a request for proposals that the city issued last year to construct a signature skyscraper and civic space on the site of a municipal parking garage in Winthrop Square. Trans National, which was the sole respondent, owns the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building on an adjacent parcel at 133 Federal St., allowing it to expand the tower’s footprint.

The developer’s team testified on Tuesday that 133 Federal St. must come down so that Piano’s tower can include a spectacular landscaped plaza that is open on all sides. But members of the Landmarks Commission expressed their belief that the two buildings could coexist.

Preservation groups questioned whether or not security requirements for the new tower can be met while maintaining public access—and if Boston needs such a large open space in the relatively small Winthrop Square, especially given the fact that several new parks are currently under construction nearby. They added that Piano is uniquely qualified to incorporate Rudolph’s building within the new scheme, pointing to his success at marrying old and new structures at the Morgan Library in New York City and the High Museum in Atlanta.

The 90-day stay on demolition opens the way for possible revisions to Piano’s design plan but does not mandate preservation of the Rudolph building. Commissioners requested more information from Trans National and are also soliciting ideas from other groups.

Ted Smalley Bowen