Salem is a boom town/construction zone right now with big projects ongoing, or about to begin, all over town: a large housing project on the site of the demolished St. Joseph’s Church on Lafayette Street and two more on the outskirts of town, a new “Gateway” center on one of the major entrance corridors, a new parking garage for the train station, more expansion for the Peabody Essex Museum and my own university, a huge (and great) power plant demolition/reconstruction project, and, of course, infrastructure work, a constant activity in a city as old as Salem. There is so much going on that the city has put up a separate website just to handle information about these projects.
I am glad that Salem is doing so well in terms of development, and I believe that most of these projects will benefit the city tremendously. But not all. Certainly the Mayor’s office and city government facilitated these proposals, and are doing a good job overseeing the process of their implementation. However, I can’t help thinking that much of this development is compartmentalized and not part of plan, that our city is reacting to proposals rather than seeking them out, vision in hand and mind. Too often a proposal skates by the various boards, simply because it’s better than what is there now. As is my general inclination, I can’t help but compare past and present, and as I’m teaching a summer-long graduate class on the Renaissance, a time when urban planning became an art (like everything else) that is my past. Ideals were very important to Renaissance society, for both human development and urban development. The rediscovery of Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture in 1414, the desire to build structures on a human scale. and the influence of mathematics combined to create an ideal vision for Renaissance cities, exemplified by three panels produced in the 1480s, all called The Ideal City.
Ideal Cities in Baltimore, Urbino & Berlin museums: Fra Carnevale, Walters Art Museum; Piero della Francesca or Leon Battista Alberti ?, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino; Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.
It’s really not fair to hold up these panels as standards because they were, in fact, idealized rather built cities: “windows into a better world”. Yet the ideal, the plan, the desire to live in a better world, still has merit. I know we lost the sense of human scale and aesthetic detail in the twentieth century, but we can still seek better and more beautiful buildings, that assimilate easily into their material landscape. Perhaps it’s not the lack of planning but the actual architecture that is troubling me. This is certainly the case with one project: a proposed $45 million complex that would include a possible hotel, residences and retail stores to be built on a downtown block that definitely needs some help–this would be an easy case of it’s better than what’s there now so the expectations, and the standards, will be low. The renderings for the project reveal a (cheap) brick and glass multistory building which is a mirror image of the “Tavern on the Square” structure affixed to the old Salem News building across the way: both are more suited for the suburban corporate office parks found along Route 128, Boston’s inner beltway, than a historic port city like Salem. Both buildings, like several structures built in Salem in the past few years, are not only grace-less but also place-less: they have no relation to our city’s built environment and are also, quite frankly, boring. Can’t we do better?
“Mill Hill” proposal conceptual rendering for Salem & the Waltham Corporate Center along Route 128.