Exploring the Landscapes and Structures of Boston with Common Boston

As I wrote last week, Common Boston held its first “open house” festival in Boston this past weekend and I had to take part in it. The format for this year’s festival was different than anything the organization had ever done before and while I had seen all but three of the buildings on this year’s list, I still opted to explore buildings and the landscapes I was already familiar with. I wanted a fresh take on the landscapes that have come to define the cities of Boston and Brookline, especially those landscapes designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm.

From Dorchester where I live—just two blocks away from Olmsted’s crowning jewel in Boston, Franklin Park—I boarded two buses and a Green Line trolley and walked up a hill in a neighborhood of Brookline once part of Boston. Walking up Cypress Street and Warren Street in the Green Hill section of Brookline, I was reminded of how important the elements of anticipation and surprise are in the landscapes designed by the Olmsted firm. While those streets mentioned above with their Colonial Revival, Shingle Style and Arts and Crafts houses were not designed by the Olmsted firm, their picturesque vistas definitely contribute to the anticipation and eventually, the grand reveal of Fairsted, the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

The last time I visited Fairsted was in 2009 and the landscape and the 1810 farmhouse were undergoing an extensive restoration. I didn’t get to see as much as I would have liked, since my visit was part of a class I was taking at that time at Boston University. As of 2014, the home and studio of one of the country’s most influential landscape designers is once again open to the public with guided and self-guided tours that offer a fresh perspective on the work of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Rather than take a left on Walnut Street as my Google Maps app instructed me to, I took a right to see the Principal Gatehouse—a two-story Renaissance Revival structure flanking the northern-most point of the Brookline Reservoir. The reservoir was constructed in 1848 by the City of Boston as part of its public water supply and the structure has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its stonework—according to the nomination report for designation as National Historic Landmark—recalls the work executed under architects Solomon Willard, Alexander Parris and Gridley J. F. Bryant.


Principal Gatehouse in Brookline, MA. Photo by the author.

After spending a few minutes looking at the Principal Gatehouse, I headed back up Warren Street on my way to the Olmsted National Historic Site. After a ten-minute walk and after much anticipation, I came upon Fairsted. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. purchased the 1810 farmhouse in 1883 and moved from New York City to Brookline, at the recommendation of his friend and frequent collaborator Henry Hobson Richardson—the famed architect behind Trinity Church in the City of Boston. A rustic arch welcomes visitors to Fairsted and hints at what lies ahead, by framing not the house and studio, but a turn-around for carriages. This leads to not only the house, but to one of the more prominent features of the landscape: the rustic scenery that extends as far as the eye can see. Depending on the direction one takes, either the house is revealed first, or the Hollow (more on this in a bit), the Rock Garden or the South Lawn.


Fairsted, The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA. Photo by the author.


Fairsted, The Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, Brookline, MA. Photo by the author.

If one bears right after passing through the rustic arch and walks down the steps on the far right, one enters a part of the landscape known as The Hollow—a sunken corner that is “a miniature version of the lyrical and naturalistic ‘secret gardens’ Olmsted used in his designs for larger parks.”


The Hollow. Photo by the author.


The Hollow. Photo by the author.


The Hollow. Photo by the author.

Other parts of the landscape at Fairsted include a Rock Garden located in a shady, secluded woodland and the South Lawn, a broad meadow that was once an apple orchard when Olmsted purchased the property. On that same section of the landscape was a barn, which was moved in order to reshape, grade and replant the space to how we experience it today.


The South Lawn. Photo by the author.


The South Lawn. Photo by the author.

As a #HistoricHouseCrush fanatic, the wallpaper caught my eye:


Instagram photo by the author.

After the Olmsted National Historic Site, I meandered down Warren Street and to the Back Bay Fens, specifically, the Fenway Victory Gardens.

The Fenway Victory Gardens are one of my favorite spots in Boston to walk around and admire the many plants and flowers grown by almost 500 community gardeners that have a plot here. Part of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, this landscape features several structures of historic and architectural significance like the Boylston Street Bridge by Henry Hobson Richardson as well as a nearby pump house also designed by Richardson. The pump house has been rehabilitated and is now the visitor center for the Emerald Necklace Conservancy.


The Emerald Necklace, overlooking the Muddy River. Photo by the author.


The Fenway Victory Gardens. Photo by the author.


The Fenway Victory Gardens. Photo by the author.


The Fenway Victory Gardens. Photo by the author.


The Boylston Street Bridge, Henry Hobson Richardson. Instagram photo by the author.

Finally, after talking to some gardeners and admiring the many plants in bloom, I continued down on Boylston Street and stopped at the Boston Architectural College—one of my favorite Heroic buildings in the city. The College’s main building was completed in 1964 and designed by Ashley, Myer & Associates and even on a rainy day, it is nothing short of stunning. The design competition for both the Boston Architectural College and Boston City Hall were subjects of a terrific exhibition on view in the same building this past Spring.


The Boston Architectural College, built in 1964. Ashley, Myer & Associates. Instagram photo by the author.


The Boston Architectural College, built in 1964. Ashley, Myer & Associates. Instagram photo by the author.

Instagramming Brutalism

This morning while riding the Green Line to work I overheard a conversation between two men commenting on the state of architecture in Boston. The men started discussing the current cold weather snap in the northeast and how when they were younger, schools never used to close. I wasn’t completely focused on the conversation and I’m uncertain how they ended up talking about Brutalism and Boston City Hall, but the brief exchange between the two was nothing short of inspiring.

One man told the other that Boston City Hall should be considered among the top 3 most beautiful and interesting buildings in the world. He spoke about the sculptural qualities of the building and how groundbreaking it was for Boston to commission a concrete building of its size and uniqueness in a city where brick seems to be the law of the land.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything for this blog, but my experience this morning inspired me to post some of my Instagrams of brutalist buildings in and around the city (some else where too). I hope to get back to blogging and exploring the arts and built environment more frequently, but in the meantime, this post should break my blogging silence.


Le Corbusier, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University. Cambridge, MA. 1962.


Paul Rudolph, Blue Cross Blue Shield Building. Boston, MA. 1960.


Marcel Breuer, O’Bryant High School, Boston, MA.

photo 2 (1)

Daniel Mann Johnson + Mendenhall, The Line Hotel, Los Angeles, CA. 1964.

photo 1 (4)

John M. Johansen, The Orlando Public Library building, 1966.

photo 3 (1)

John M. Johansen, The Orlando Public Library building, 1966.

photo 4

John M. Johansen, The Orlando Public Library building, 1966.

photo 2

Bertrand Goldberg, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA 1976-1980.

photo 3

Bertrand Goldberg, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA 1976-1980.

photo 1 (3)

The Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine comprises the Harvard Medical School library and Boston Medical Library, 1965.

photo 1 (2)

Shore Plaza East Apartments, 600 Border St., East Boston, MA.

Photographs with a View of Her Own

For those of us with an interest in Boston’s Gilded Age, the Women’s Suffrage Movement or 19th century female photographers, the name Clover Adams rings a bell. Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams—Gilded Age socialite and portrait photographer, is currently the subject of a small but delightful exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams 1883-1885—traces the privileged life of “a fiercely intelligent Boston Brahmin.” Clover began experimenting with photography in the summer of 1883 while her husband Henry Adams—prominent historian, Harvard professor and novelist—was writing Esther, a novel loosely based on the making of Trinity Church in the City of Boston. Adams modeled the heroine of the novel after his wife Clover, whom he characterized in it as a “second rate amateur” painter.

“I’ve gone in for photography and find it very absorbing” wrote Clover on September 7 1883. “My wife does nothing except take photographs…” wrote Henry to Elizabeth Sherman Cameron on July 26 1883. Artistically dismissed by Henry, Clover continued to make compelling photographs that allowed for an intimate look at America’s Gilded Age.

Clover’s photographs are marked by quotes or any information she recorded of the individual or place she photographed—often providing a glimpse into the personalities of highly respected figures. When photographed, Senator and future Supreme Court Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar of Mississippi refused to have his photo taken until “he had rumpled [his hair] all up,” wrote Clover alongside his photograph on February 23 1884.

(Left) Henry Adams seated at desk in dark coat, writing, Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams, 1883 (Right)Umbrella tree at Smith’s Point, Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams. Both Photographs courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.

Clover’s ability to communicate the personality of her sitters is evident in the arrangement of her albums.  She paired a photograph of Henry Adams in his study room alongside a photograph of a lonely tree perched on a mountain top. One can arrive at numerous conclusions, but we can all assume that this arrangement speaks to the lonely life that Henry led.

Organized by the seasons of the year, the exhibition highlights Clover’s three albums and displays them in the context of letters, loose photographs and ephemera—including her personal sketchbook with a watercolor by John La Farge.

Having lived in the immediate surroundings of Trinity Church before moving to Washington, DC, Henry Adams became close friends with Phillips Brooks, Trinity’s then charismatic preacher; America’s premier architect Henry Hobson Richardson and artist John La Farge. Clover photographed Trinity Church and the people behind one of America’s greatest architectural treasures. These photographs, many of them iconic—also form part of this exhibition.

The photographs of Clover Adams are as heartbreaking as the life she led. On the morning of Sunday December 6, 1885 she wrote “if I had a single point of character, I would stand on that and grow back to life.” That same Sunday morning, Clover committed suicide by drinking potassium cyanide, the chemical she used to develop her own photographs. She was 42.

Henry Adams never spoke of her or mentions her in his masterpiece “The Education of Henry Adams,” but he honored Clover’s memory with the bronze seated statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens–placed over her grave at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, DC.

A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams 1883-1885 is accompanied by a biography of the same title by exhibition curator Natalie Dystra. The exhibition is on view until June 02, 2012.

A Conversation: William Cordova at the Boston Center for the Arts

William Cordova, the House that Frank Lloyd Wright built for Fred Hampton y Mark Clark, 2006 (installation view, Arndt & Partner, Berlin, 2006). Wood, books and suspended drawing, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist; courtesy Arndt & Partner Berlin

Born in Lima, Peru and raised in Miami, Florida, William Cordova is an internationally known artist practicing across multiple disciplines. Having earned his BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996 and his MFA from Yale University in 2004, Mr. Cordova has exhibited at MoMA PS1, the 2008 Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial and Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston among many other national and international museums and galleries. Mr. Cordova was just awarded $25,000 as part of the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s 2011 Painters and Sculptors Grant Program.

The Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts is currently hosting William Cordova’s first solo exhibition in the city curated by Evan J. Garza—the Exhibitions and Public Programs Coordinator for the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  On view until April 15th, this one’s 4U (pa’ nosotros) brings together new and recent works in sculpture, installation, video and works on paper that give meaning to the past in a contemporary context.

On Friday February 10, 2012 an informal conversation was held at the BCA’s Plaza Theater with William Cordova, Evan J. Garza and Jose Falconi, Curator for the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University.

Mr. Garza opened the conversation by briefly introducing Cordova’s the House that Frank Lloyd Wright Built for Fred Hampton y Mark Clark, a structure made of two by fours that remakes the apartment layout of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, two Black Panther members killed by the Chicago Police. The work, which is included in the exhibition at The Mills Gallery, formed the foundation for this Boston show.

William on his process and the evolution of the House that Frank Lloyd Wright Built for Fred Hampton y Mark Clark:

There are different ways that that piece evolved. In general, I’m interested in architecture and how to represent ideas of resistance through architecture. I’m often gravitating to material history that can represent that or does represent that.

I’m trying to activate certain materials, certain histories for us to reconsider ourselves, how we sometimes are seeing it from a detached perspective. While it may not be happening to us, we assume we have no relationship to that history or that situation, but in actuality, we are probably a lot closer than not.

I tend to create a lot of parallels even in the title, “Frank Lloyd Wright,” “Fred Hampton,” “Mark Clark.” Those relationships may not necessarily be obvious. The way I wanted to approach these projects or art making, was not by limiting myself to making a representation of an image or a situation by making a painting and putting it up on a wall. I wanted to provoke or challenge the way we think and painting can do that, I don’t think it would have been enough for what I wanted to do.

I was thinking about building materials, structures, symbols that represent something in transition.

I am sure everyone is familiar seeing a house—half-way built before there are dry walls; before the electrical parts are installed; before the roof. What I wanted to do was show that first part where you have the foundation and stop there; suggest to the viewer, to provoke them questions. What’s next? Are you going to add something else? Why isn’t there something else in here? Why does it suppose to be revealing?  What does that have to do in relationship to the title, to the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, to the individuals—the activists.

The piece in a way is a transitional piece, is a labyrinth, it’s also a monument, it’s a shrine.  It has different entry points; it’s also very layered. It isn’t specifically about one thing—it isn’t about Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Frank Lloyd Wright—but about many situations or histories.

The conversation then shifted to the idea of forgotten historical narratives and how we perceive monuments. This part of the discussion focused on the installation the House that Frank Lloyd Wright Built for Fred Hampton y Mark Clark. Cordova discussed his interest in language as it develops in his works in particular in the title piece of the exhibition this one’s 4U (pa’ nosotros)—a video-sound installation that juxtaposes audio from Federico Garcia Hurtado’s  1984 film Tupac Amaru and video from the documentary by Peter Spirer Thug Angel—about Tupac Amaru Shakur

William Cordova on language, its meaning, and how titles emerge in his works:

I’m interested in language. I am interested in language and how we interpret it. How we communicate. I am interested in presence and how that is represented or how we represent with others. But I am also aware that in our society of the condition of trying to divide things, categorize and separate and so we might not be able to relate to one another because we’re conditioned just to have certain divisions, even though they may not inherently be there.

I’m more interested in the commonalities than the divisions. I am interested in writing and literature; that’s a big influence in my work.

Untitled (geronimo I & II), 2006-2012. Reclaimed paper bag, feathers, aerosol can. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Mr. Cordova on the lyrical quality in his titles:

I try to appeal to many different groups, many different audiences and a lot of it is through written word. Some of it is more abstract, some of it is more literal—in order to appeal to as many people as possible.

I incorporate popular culture imagery to a certain extent. I don’t want to promote it or rely on it when I question it and slow it down—how we consume that type of imagery or any type of imagery. A lot of times visual art is considered entertainment. It’s like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, you get it?—and then you move on. It shouldn’t be about that.

Certain work rely more on certain titles, but I am not relying on the title to do the work for the visual art.

The work that I do is completely installation based, so all the works and all the components are in conversation and isolated they may not function the same way. It is really important that all the ingredients are in the same bowl. Otherwise certain things might not necessarily trigger the initial idea I had in mind, but it is all open for interpretation. It just depends on how we are conditioned to absorb, receive or interpret it.

this is not 4 U (I miss U already…), 2009 Aluminum foil, cardboard, reclaimed Plexiglas, tape 17 x 29.5 x 7 inches 43.2 x 74.9 x 17.8 cm. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Mr. Cordova on the concept of temporality and how he treats the life of the object he creates (there is a work influenced by the Nazca lines in the window space of the gallery that was created specifically for this show and for that space—therefore will not exist in any other gallery or museum):

A lot of times we rely on digital cameras or digital recordings and everything comes really quick. We don’t necessarily take time to value that moment. When we see something, we to start taking pictures with our phones—and there is something that is lost when we have so much access. It’s like always having candy in a bowl–you won’t desire it because it’s always there. I did this site-specific piece on the floor of the institution [Mills Gallery] and I wanted to represent something that is very close to me, but at the same time it is not something that can be transported and displayed somewhere else. I didn’t want to put any type of financial or superficial value to it. I wanted it to exist. It is not something that you see at every installation. It depends on the space.

The conversation ended with the concept of constellations and how we form our own ideas of representations. Mr. Garza commented on William’s ability to take points that exist in different points in time and in space and connect them to create bridges between them. These connections and bridges are observed throughout this exhibition at Mills Gallery.

This talk  illuminated many of the works in this exhibition and allowed those in attendance to search for a deeper meaning in Mr. Cordova’s works. William Cordova provided a framework to not only better understand the House that Frank Lloyd Wright Built for Fred Hampton y Mark Clark, but also invited us to draw our own parallels with this and other works within the exhibition. William Cordova: this one’s 4U (pa’ nosotros) is on view until April 15, 2012.