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Built in Boston, Machado and Silvetti and the New Moderns

Douglass Shand-Tucci   2000

Photo | Dewey Square Headhouses

In the revised and expanded edition, 2000, of this survey of the architects and architecture of greater Boston, Douglass Shand-Tucci refers to Machado and Silvetti as the standard bearers for Boston’s New Moderns. In Shand-Tucci’s terms, New Moderns have formed Design Firms whose role is to push the envelope and advance the frontiers of the field. They are neither classicist or conventionally modern, but rather draw from totality of architectural history to inform their contemporary work. Following are a few excerpts from the book.

Drawing | Harvard Graduate Student Housing

"According to one's point of view, Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, are theorists of baffling and impenetrable vision, or now, in the new century, Boston's hottest architects: masters already in their discreet way, of what Lutyens famously called the "great game" of his mature classical mode. In the way theory, teaching, and practice come together in their work, in the seriousness and gravity of their sensuality, in the nobility of aspiration of these thinkers, designers, and teachers – one part Palladio to another part rocker Patti Smith – there has always been a certain expectation.

"Machado and Silvetti have no trouble finding words of power: 'We are concerned…,' they declare, 'with a manner of producing architecture that is personal… with an individual authorship… that is riskeir than most in its desire to propose a world and a difference.' George Baird explains: 'Forming their intellectual position in architecture in the wake of the startling events of 1968, Machado and Silvetti nevertheless sedulously avoided the literal politicizations of practice that became widespread among thoughtful young architects in the 1970s. Holding fast to a belief in the continuing efficacy of form, they declared themselves very early to be primarily concerned with the importance of making concrete proposals for buildings to be built. At the same time, they also resisted the more popular modalities of so-called "postmodernism"… especially its consumerist North American version.

Photo | Sidney Street Apartments

"Expressive of this firms' philosophy of design and aspiration in their conversion of a nondescript 1920s Cambridgeport warehouse into offices with a top-story residence and roof garden. By regularizing the fenestration and running a pair of top-floor windows together behind a new steel balcony, painting the exterior brick walls a steely gray with a pale yellow accent on the vertical plane of the balcony, and, finally, by adding a concrete stair, steel columns, and roof canopy with a glass vestibule behind, Machado & Silvetti have transformed this prosaic building into a work of such exquisite line and finesse that one can only call it Industrial High Style. It is a superb example of what Machado means when he declares: 'Invention is extremely personal, and comes from wherever you can get it. For me it comes from movies and theater, fashion design, and especially the design of objects – industrial design. The key notion is transformation. There are forms that one puts together, transforms, and manipulates. It's tricky when you say there is nothing new, but the extreme transformation of known sources can yield a new product. In our case, the use of form is very conscious, rather than subconscious.

Photo | Concrd House Courtyard

At the Concord house, the geometric underpinnings of the firms work takes the form of 'a carefully choreographed sequence of spaces that proceeds,' in Karen Stein's words, 'from outside to inside to outside, elongating and foreshortening views like a shifting camera lens,' a wonderfully kinetic, very modern image.

The crisp, L-shaped volume of the house is for me most winningly presented on the court side, where, above a ground story of slate of three variations of gray and blue superbly patterned and laid up without visible mortar joints, there rises an upper story of red-cedar shingles, the whole façade nobly ordered, and with many subtle touches: it may be hard to see the four-inch flare of the courtyard façade at the roof line to conceal the gutters, but notice the way the plane of one panel of the ground-story slate wall to the left of the front door inclines inward toward it.

It is all very New England – the stone walls, the wood shingles, the double-hung windows – but it is also, as the designers would say, 'unprecedented.' (Their major book is entitled Unprecedented Realism.) There is, of course, a theory; there always is with these architects. They call it 'resemantization, a process of giving old forms fresh meaning by placing them in new contexts.' It is the technique, so to speak, of their transformations.

Drawing | Allston Public Library

"Machado & Silvetti's design is, at its core, always supremely about form, form so strong it easily accommodates a certain elegance. Their Allston Library, for example, with its butterfly roof: not everyone could sing so lyrical a song so boldly, nor fuse so deftly past and present. (Insert Photo)

"In this Machado & Silvetti, though very cosmopolitan, even global, architects, show themselves to be truly Bostonian, any ill-considered generalizations about Boston notwithstanding. One of the few critics who has seen the truth of the matter is Paul Goldberger: 'In Boston,' he has noticed, unusually, 'the impulse toward architectural innovation, which has always been strong, exists in a kind of balance with the moral presence of history – a balance more profound, surely, than in any other city in the United States.' "

Photo | Atelier 505
Concord House
Allston Library
Dewey Square
One Western Avenue
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