An architect who graduated from MIT in 1952, John R. Myer was awarded a Fullbright scholarship to study in Italy. While there he worked with Gino Valle at Studio Valle in Udine. Valle is widely recognized for his public buildings and the flap display Cifra 3 clock, considered a masterpiece of industrial design. Returning to the US, Myer taught at MIT, becoming head of the architecture department in the 1980’s, meanwhile continuing to practice and focusing on public buildings like the Massachusetts State Archive Building in his private practice.
You and Kevin A. Lynch are responsible for an entire urban trend as a result of the success of the 1961 Downtown Waterfront Faneuil Hall Renewal Plan sponsored by the Boston Redevelopment Authority–a proposal to renew the run-down waterfront district by reconnecting the port to the city, building a residential base and developing a tourist/shopping hub that incorporated historic buildings around Faneuil Hall. Prior to your plan, as a result of losing manufacturing jobs the waterfront was disintegrating. Had you worked with Kevin Lynch prior to being engaged as architect for the Boston waterfront?
“My contact with Kevin Lynch began while I was a student and became important when we both left for Italy [Myer had a Fulbright grant] in the summer of 1952. We lived near each other in Fiesole overlooking Florence. I was there to study Italian Squares and Kevin was searching for a way to describe the whole ‘city by studying the mental image of that city……..concentrating on one particular visual quality: The apparent clarity or “legibility” of the cityscape.’ We and another couple went out into Florence to report back to Kevin where we felt oriented and why. in 1954 we returned to Boston and then in 1958 Anderson and Fred Adams hired Kevin and myself to make a a plan for Scollay Square and the surrounding area which would be called the Boston Government Center.”
I understand the Boston Government Center was a difficult experience. Could you describe what happened?
“The original master plan for Boston Government Center had significance [much of the design was based on Myer and Lynch’s study of public spaces in Florence and the architecture
designed for the Center reflected the forms of nearby Central Business District’s skyscrapers]. Sadly a struggle occurred when Ed Logue became the director of the new Boston Redevelopment Authority. Logue introduced I.M. Pei into the process, who did not agree with the original design of the Center created by me, Kevin Lynch, Lawrence Anderson and Fred Adams. Logue insisted I.M. Pei contribute to the work that we had all but completed, and ultimately, much of our design was jettisoned, creating a vast uncontained space that continues to be problematic because it does not have a sense of containment or intimacy. As a result of our research in Italy, we understood the importance of these qualities in public spaces, concepts which Pei rejected.”
Working with Lynch, you two transformed the entire paradigm of urban planning. What was the allure of urban design for you as an architect?
“It was wonderful to design something of this scale and particularly with an open minded and friendly collaborator such as Kevin Lynch. He was focused on giving form to our city and knew the elements that would contribute to it. We worked well together and complimented each other. Our goal with the plan were: Open the city to the sea by creating a viable waterfront that preserved the architectural jewels and enhanced the city’s economy.
“Kevin was focused on what makes a city a clear, livable and beautiful place. We did the design for the Government Center just at the time his book, The Image of the City was published, It was exciting to get a chance to do this urban planning – urban designing in collaboration with Kevin being cognizant of the points he made in his fine book”
“The 60s and the 70s were an exciting time at MIT. What stood out for me was the presence of Gyorgy Kepes, an artist, Kevin Lynch, urban designer, and Lawrence Anderson, architect. They came to MIT through William Wurster who became Dean of Architecture in 1944. [Wurster incidentally was the subject of harassment by the Tenney Committee investigating UnAmerican activities.] They were less in the Bauhaus tradition and more in the American tradition of architecture in the landscape. Anderson became Head of Architecture in 1947 and became its Dean from 1965 until 1972. Kevin Lynch began his teaching career in 1948. During the 1950‘s I worked on several projects with him. I began teaching at MIT in 1958 and had close contact with him professionally and socially.
“The 60s and the 70s were an exciting time at MIT. What stood out for me was the presence of Gyorgy Kepes, an artist, Kevin Lynch, urban designer, and Lawrence Anderson, architect.
“[Unlike the Boston Government Center ] the 1964 Boston Waterfront Plan, however, was highly successful. What was once a decaying and abandoned area, little used and without definition, became an attractive clear area, connecting the city to the downtown waterfront and the Harbor, representing Boston’s connection to shipping and the sea. It gave clarity to the edge of the city and became an important destination site for the city’s population and visitors. The business community made use of its amenities and residents moved to the area, so its renovation was an economic boon to the whole city.
Urban planner Christopher Kiley has described your Downtown Waterfront – Faneuil Hall Renewal Plan, “The Downtown Waterfront Faneuil Hall Renewal Plan utilized two models: Le Corbusier’s innovative (and non- contextual) Modern City model manifested throughout the areas of new development, but it was tempered with Lynch and Myer’s very innovative (yet contextual) model of an American city that celebrates its past by acknowledging and preserving important and significant buildings.” Did you have any idea of the juggernaut this concept would become?
“Actually, we were just doing work we believed in, we had no idea that this waterfront project would instigate a new direction in urban design.”
The use of cinematography to study the city, especially the spatial relation to a moving landscape was first introduced in 1964 by Donald Appleyard, Kevin Lynch and your book, The View from the Road, published by M.I.T. Press in 1964. This book, which by the way ,is now so rare copies range from $1100.00 to $750.00 contributed to this new urban philosophy. How did this correspond with your personal ethics and interests?
“I’ve always been interested in public spaces so The View from the Road demonstrated how the techniques we used to study Florence and elsewhere could be applied to illustrate why and how we feel oriented along our roads and pathways. This was a vital understanding of the urban fabric and affected all my design work.”
You were the recipient of a Grunsfeld Grant in 1968 to visit Japanese gardens, what impact did this have on your work?
“The Japanese gardens I studied had a profound impact on my design work. It showed me what gardens could be: intense expression of various qualities simply using vegetal and rock forms. In general, I’ve been quite influenced by all Japanese design, such as the cabinetry in Pasture House which alludes to Shoji screens.”
“I became keenly aware for the need for ” sustainable architecture” in the late 1970’s when oil prices escalated and I re-insulated our house in Cambridge, as well as installed solar hot water at the time.
Who worked with you in the original staff of the Arrowstreet architectural firm? Was this practice primarily devoted to civic architecture?
“There were several members of Ashley, Myer, Smith, 1958-1960, which became Arrowstreet Inc. (1960-1987), who were involved with civic design although we had various types of projects. Richard Krauss and Steve Carr come to mind. Krauss and I started the Environmental Design Group, a non profit affiliate of Ashley Myer & Smith and Arrowstreet. Steve Carr while working with Ashley, Myer & Smith wrote City signs and lights, a policy study prepared for the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, published by MIT in 1973. He later worked with me on the Washington DC project “Streets for People.” Our practice was a mixture of civic design and architecture.”
Your Pasture House in Tamworth, New Hampshire was prescient, being sustainable, and attentive to the landscape. Were you building other sustainable projects in the 1980’s?
“I became keenly aware for the need for ” sustainable architecture” in the late 1970’s when oil prices escalated and I re-insulated our house in Cambridge, as well as installed solar hot water at the time. As early as 1963 I was thinking about sustainability, although we didn’t call it this at the time, and this dominated the design of the Butcher House in Brooklyn, Maine and other houses. The Butcher summer house faced the south east. The pool used salt water, and the rear of the house is imbedded into the land to keep it cool.”
I wanted them to have a different relation to architecture and places from my own education where the master teacher told us how to see places, instead I wanted them to talk about their own feelings about places they cared about.”
What is sustainable about Pasture House?
“It is important that the house faces the south and is imbedded in the hillside. The living area has a cement floor. There is no basement under the house except in the kitchen. The solid floor absorbs and retains the sun’s radiant energy. The sun enters the south facing glass of the Living Room which also reveals a great view of the Ossipee Mountains to the south. The glass is double glazed to insulate the room from the winter cold on the outside. It also has a “Low E Film” to reflect the warmth back into the Living Room. This film is in a way magical in that it reflects warmth back into the Living Room while it admits the suns rays which heats the room. The Living Room is heated not only by the sun, but also two heating elements: 1) the Fire Place which is a pleasure on winter days, and 2) A wood stove embedded in the masonry. The stove is fed through its stove door which faces the front door and the adjacent wood storage in the carport. We use about a cord a year. There is also an electric panel in the ceiling which turns on if the house temperature drops below 40 deg. Farenheight, thus protecting the house from freezing up.”
“Our supply of electricity is from the local power company which has a network of power lines throughout the country roads of the state. Because storms and downed trees falling on the power lines can interrupt power supply, we installed a stand-by generator which will supplies electricity in event of failure in the grid.”
Could you describe your work in Pakistan during the 1990’s?
“Based at Harvard and MIT, the Aga Kahn’s Foundation for Islamic Architecture engaged a group of us to propose a plan to preserve the terraced farmlands of Karimabad, Pakistan and work with the community to incorporate sustainable architecture into their vernacular building tradition. Karimbad is located at an elevation of 9,000 feet, K2, the second highest point on earth, is only a couple of valleys away. Traditionally, dwellings in Karimbad are masonry and mortar with rough wood roofs, with no insulation and in the winter are quite cold and often filled with smoke from cooking. The Karimbad Urban and Housing Project offered technical suggestions such as various materials to better insulate and protect homes from seismic activity.”
Your most recent publication, People & Places is a collaboration with your wife Margaret H. Myer, a psychologist who lectured at Harvard. How did this evolve?
“Well I am an architect who has thought about places all the time! And it interested me very much how my wife, Marty [Margaret H. Myer, graduated from Wellesley and after graduate school lectured on psychology at Harvard) thought about places in the context of how people related to them! I was teaching architecture to MIT students. I wanted them to have a different relation to architecture and places from my own education where the master teacher told us how to see places, instead I wanted them to talk about their own feelings about places they cared about.”
“On the first evening for the students to make their presentations about the place they had selected, often in or about their own home, I asked Marty to join us. The presentations were very strong and clear. The students had really done good work. So much so that no one could say anything about them including Mart and myself. I found myself asking “Why is this so difficult to talk about?”
“Mart answered ‘It is difficult because we are talking about early unconscious thoughts and needs.’ Following this evening we began to explore the relationship between our early needs and our reactions to places. We decided to write about our findings.”
Could you synopsize People & Places?
“The book has basically 3 sections. In the first section we explore are early infant needs and describe how these affect our reactions to places. We chose as a model Erikson’s 8 ages of man to describe the development of a person. The second section demonstrates how these early needs affect or should affect design. The third section deals with historical continuities and how this contributes to the making of places. We start in the book with what makes a person and move on to what makes a place.”
You have had a fascinating career, is it possible to summarize it in one word?