From the Golden Age of Skyscrapers, an Eyesore No More

Anthony Paletta takes a look at a new book by Elihu Rubin, chronicling the intriguing political history behind the construction of Boston's Prudential Center in the mid-1950s.
June 30, 2012, 7am PDT | Ryan Lue
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The course of urban development in America, Paletta argues, has long been shaped by an overbearing love affair between "the highway engineer and the forward-thinking corporation" – much to the peril of those who use and occupy the city. Elihu Rubin presents a rare case wherein that romance ultimately served to strengthen city spaces in his new book, Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape.

During a period drunk with the symbolic power of the skyscraper, just as the second half of the century was beginning to unfold, Prudential was on the hunt for a site for its New England Regional headquarters. But once Prudential set its sights on Boston's Back Bay rail yard, it fell into contention with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which envisioned an extension of the turnpike running "squarely through the rail yard site." City officials rushed to bring the two visions together, and after a rather painless compromise and a hard-won tax exemption for Prudential, its new signature tower was born.

"The Pru was not by anyone's lights an unqualified triumph," Rubin notes. "As time went on, they were eventually addressed by an extensive reexamination and refurbishment of the project; indeed, these revisions have continued into the 21st century. One indicator of the Pru's success over the long run, however, has been its demonstrated malleability. Designed as an enclave, with its ring road holding back the surrounding city and its podium resting on three layers of parking garages, recent alterations and additions have transformed the Prudential Center from an urban island into what is intended to be a piece of connective urban tissue."

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Published on Thursday, June 28, 2012 in Metropolis Magazine
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