Concrete Ghosts and Gabled Horizons: Allston’s Charlesview Apartments and Residences

ELAMI: I feel like this is a good starting point for our explorations of Boston, because it’s the end for these buildings. They’re going to be gone by May of this year, and all of the residents have relocated to new housing, now called Charlesview Residences, in Brighton. Jonathan Shaw’s article in Harvard Magazine has an extensive review of what’s in store for this part of Allston, and I’m sure some of our future discussions and photographs will touch on those developments, including Continuum. The Charlesview Residences development project itself (designed by CBT Architects) cost an estimated $141 million dollars, so this obviously isn’t some minor thing.

A lot has already been written about the Charlesview Apartments. Their development, from 1969 to 1970, was sponsored by Harvard University following a period of “urban renewal” that included the demolition of people’s homes. The apartments were meant to be affordable housing (a term worth picking at). Unfortunately, as this article details, this translated to poor civil engineering — leaks and flat roofs, an undesirable location, poor implementation of public space, etc. It also points out the two impediments to redevelopments: Charlesview’s residents didn’t want to be relocated, and it had forty-year subsidy contracts that did not expire until 2011.

As far as names to put to the original apartments’ design goes, all I’ve found is that a contract was awarded to a group called the Committee for North Harvard (CNH), headed by local Allston-Brighton congregations, and that this later became Charlesview, Inc. In my experience, the Internet is not the best place to look for this sort of information — I’ve had much more luck with libraries — but it’s hard to not feel like there’s been some deliberate obfuscation of authorship. Who’d want to be associated with the Charlesview Apartments?

One of my interests in this complex stems from a personal belief that 20th century architects often minimized the import of comfort and individuality in residential buildings. The Charlesview Apartments were poorly engineered, but they’re also aggressively ugly, even for “brutalist” structures. Everything feels awkward— the upper storey’s leftmost and rightmost windows that are pushed all the way to the edges, the projecting stairwells’ side windows that are flush with the facades, the concrete’s slightly ribbed texture that evokes cardboard, etc.

And now that the buildings have been gutted and had many of their windows’ panes removed, their prison-like demeanor is drawn out more than ever. Walking past them at night really does feel like you’re passing a zone that’s been dragged straight out of hell. This is not a collective of buildings that absorbed any of its inhabitants’ happiness and held onto it after they left. But you and I weren’t going to the site just because the buildings are being demolished; I think it’s safe to say that we also find their current state fun to look at.

So another thing that comes to mind for me is the perceptive difference that happens when you’re assessing inhabited sites versus uninhabited sites. I feel indignant when reflecting on how the Charlesview Apartments were lived in for decades, but there’s more to my emotions than anger or loathing. I would never say that these buildings are beautiful, but their ugliness has an allure — the allure of something that seems almost belligerently opposed to even a smidgen of coziness or prettiness. Their present and very temporary existence as objects that are now disassociated from their function has given them a new aesthetic value.

SQUIER: I agree with your description of many 20th century architectural developments as authoritarian, and seemingly thoughtless from a humanist perspective. It is interesting, however, to compare this design, and other contemporaneous urban housing projects, with the planning of suburban neighborhoods from the same time period. The housing types that resulted from suburban expansion in the 50s and 60s, such as the ranch, are much more thoughtfully designed. Indeed, they were imbued with an idealistic philosophy for post-war America that preached a higher standard of living for American families. This brings to mind questions about race and a “privileged” class; there is no doubt an interesting connection between the idea of “white flight” and trends in urban vs suburban housing architecture and community design.

On another level, there is also the idea that Boston’s architectural identity throughout history is one of European import, and that this trend continues today. While that notion is perhaps most obvious in the examples of 19th century structures of Boston, it is also evident in this example of brutalist architecture that is arguably descended from European Modernism. I am reminded of a visit last summer by my French cousin and his friend. Both are architects and civil engineers; one studied in Paris, and the other in the Netherlands. During their visit we toured the city on foot. They dismissed those locally-loved, classical revival structures as poor copies of European vernacular, and were instead drawn to and excited by the examples of Brutalism sprinkled throughout Boston.

Returning to the Charlesview Apartments: according to David Smith’s 2011 article, they were thoughtlessly engineered, not taking into account the snow and rain. They were made as high density units, but with little to no “play” spaces, unless you include the parking lots. So what was the impetus behind CBT’s final design? The prevailing “modern” sensibility of functional, reductive form? Or simply ease, spatial efficiency, and affordability (i.e., maximum profit over livability/longevity), as we still often see in housing developments today? I am tempted to think it is the latter.

While admittedly cold and of an unpleasant color, the basic repetitive elements, essentially varied rectangles of concrete, are pleasing to me, as are the balconies and covered porches. Where the design fails most grievously, in my opinion, is in the planning of the surrounding amenities and public spaces, i.e. parking, street access, and green spaces. The overall layout feels more like motel, with its parking facing the highway, and a central “courtyard” space.

On Western Ave, the parking lot runs the length of the complex, and is situated between the units and the street, creating an unpleasant view both from the road and from inside. On Harvard Ave, it appears as though the back of the complex was to face the street, each patio surrounded by hideous temporary fencing that provided little privacy or security. It seems unfinished. Walls could have been executed in concrete, and no doubt easily incorporated into the prefab design. To access or leave their homes, residents would have had to pass through parking lots or driveways. It is telling how auto-centric this design is, and the degree to which the architects failed to integrate this micro-community into its greater context, which might be one reason that the neighborhood itself did not develop economically.

I do enjoy looking at them, and imaging other possibilities. Having now seen the structures as a gutted skeleton, I’m not that opposed to their basic form, and could even be persuaded that they could have been reclaimed and redesigned in some way. This would depend on their actual overall structural integrity and the degree to which they have in fact deteriorated. The roof situation would have to be addressed, perhaps by adding another story and integrating roof-top patios, gardens, or even a green energy supply. In terms of parking, the long strip facing Western could be turned into a park, and the lot accessible from N. Harvard could be replaced with an adequately sized garage that could in turn be of a green design, or incorporate floor level retail. Finally, the facades, including those protruding office-park stairwells, could be remade to integrate directly with the street and the community, rather than being in isolation.

ELAMI: Regarding “white flight”: yes, there’s so much to discuss when it comes to the intersections of race, class, and urban development. My mind goes to photographs of Roxbury — whose population, by the 1960s, was almost totally black — from the early 1970s, and everything is in a state of squalor and transience. With the migration of Jewish and Irish populations to other areas in Boston, Roxbury became more neglected than it already was. I’ve walked by a “park” next to Warren Gardens Housing many times while going to work, and it’s crushing how small and straggling it is. There’s no question that Boston, and the United States as a whole, has put and continues to put predominantly black communities at the bottom of its priorities (just look at what’s happening in Chicago, for example), and that people tend to feel most comfortable living among others who share their skin color. I’d be interested to find out what the ethnic makeup of the Charlesview Apartments’ residents was.

I agree with your comparison of the Apartments’ layout to a motel’s. It’s a great point, actually. I don’t want to downplay how unattractive and hostile I think the buildings’ appearance is — I’m skeptical about how much they could’ve been saved with a makeover — but I do think the layout does account for a lot of the intuitive discomfort I have when looking at the site, or photographs of it. Had I ever lived there, the Apartments’ location and the usage of space would’ve left me feeling groundless, as if I were a “permanent visitor” rather than a resident.

During our photoshoot of the site, I mentioned how I felt there was a neat visual relationship between the Charlesview Apartments and Harvard Stadium (the latter is just a minute or two’s walking distance from the former), and that the stripping down and gutting of the buildings made this more apparent than it may have been beforehand. Harvard Stadium is built in a “classical revival” style, making reference to Greek and Roman stadiums and circuses, but it’s also executed in concrete, and there’s a reductive, stark bluntness to its features that has some correlation in the crude, ornament-eschewing Apartments.

How do you feel about the Charlesview Residences? It’s clear that CBT has attempted to affect the feel of a suburban, neighborhood-esque environment with design decisions such as the townhouses’ homely appearance, the lampposts alongside the paths, and the assignment of the majority of parking spaces to an underground garage. It’s fair, I think, to assume that most people would find living here preferable to living in the Apartments; it’s easier on the eyes, the layout avoids feeling explicitly transitory, and it’s situated within a better-developed, more active area.

The worst I can say at the moment is that the architecture’s look is uninspiringly pleasant. Both the townhouses and multi-story buildings fit into a recent pattern I’ve observed around Boston, most of all in the case of the latter: slick facades with composite, modular assembly, asymmetrical fenestration, and rectangular, shallow projecting bays. It’s all clean and nice looking, but it’s a sort of aesthetic economy that’s just not exciting for me to dwell on. And yet, it’s such a marked improvement over the Apartments that that lack of interest doesn’t bother me as much as it usually does.

SQUIER: The Boston Redevelopment Authority has done a great deal of ongoing research on demographic and economic shifts in the Boston Metro Area that is all well worth reading. It is a bit problematic to ascribe an idea of gentrification that involves displacement to all transitions in a given city. I live in the South End, which has undergone dramatic redevelopment over the last decade or so, and yet the black community remains firmly entrenched and continues to define the character of the neighborhood, together with the long standing Puerto Rican population, and smaller contingents of Asian and white people. Areas such as Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester do seem to relate more to the notion of “white avoidance” (as described here).

The situation in lower Allston is, however, unique to the adages of displaced low-income populations: the entire population was relocated just down the street, and essentially given newer, better housing, allowing them to remain and participate in the future of the neighborhood. But putting aside the discussion of socio-economic dynamics and demographic movements around the city for a moment, I’d like to address the newly built Charlesview Residences and some of the major differences between them and the original Charlesview Apartment on a perhaps more superficial level.

On the whole, I think that the new Charlesview Residences do offer a more thoughtful, sustainable solution that is much better integrated into its environment. As we have both concluded, the old Charlesview Apartments did not do this well, and CBT seems to have imagined or anticipated a very different urban evolution around them. The resulting construction was essentially an island, and it stayed that way. Whereas the original development on N. Harvard felt closed off and isolated, these new homes at Charlesview Residences are spaced openly without any communal parking lots. The traditional shingled, Boston-style town homes are located in the back of the development, and flow almost seamlessly into the neighborhood. The taller, more contemporary brick structure with sidewalk plantings addresses the commercial and post-industrial corridor (Western Ave.), adding a commanding and fresh, if unadorned, facade to the strip. It is possible that the complex’s appealing style and its accessibility will cause a demand for similar, more urban residences, which would in turn raise the value of properties along Western Ave, and spur more commercial, residential, and mixed-use development.

Regarding the visual relationship that you observed between the apartments and the Harvard Stadium, I do agree that it was there, but weak. CBT may have anticipated a proliferation of similar, perhaps concrete, construction projects that would fill out the area and really create conversation between each other, but it never came to pass. On the other hand, the new Charlesview Residences are directly engaged with Western Ave, and open right onto the sidewalk rather than parking lot; they are designed for a pedestrian experience, rather than an automotive one.

What is particularly intelligent, in my opinion, is that by situating the bulk of the development on Western Ave, the architects have legitimately engaged in urban planning by creating a visual connection with Harvard’s new, mixed-use developments at Western Ave and N.Harvard, across the street from where the Charlesview Apartments once stood. The new location also maintains and arguably improves the population’s pedestrian access to the Charles River parks and play areas.

From an aesthetic point of view, the traditional townhouse design to which you are referring is certainly part of a larger ongoing dedication to a regional style and visual language. It also serves to better integrate the development into the surrounding neighborhood, which is largely composed of such homes. Regarding your observations of the multi-story buildings, they do fit into the trend of rectangular compositions that result partly from the use of bricks and modular components. I agree that even with a visual language based on right angled forms, one should be able to conceive a more interesting façade, but the landscaping is helpful, as is the openness and fluidity between the larger structures, the townhomes, and the rest of the surrounding neighborhood. “Aesthetic economy” is a good way to describe it, but they are decidedly less reductive and far more pleasing than the old Charlesview Apartments.

Hopefully, the Charlesview Residences will be there for decades more than their predecessor. If anything is uncertain, it is the future of the car dealerships and office parks that still line Western Ave and date from the same era as the original Charlesview Apartments.

Text by Ario Elami & Alexander Squier; photographs by Alexander Squier

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