by Michael R. Allen
Whenever the Roberts Tower on Eighth Street downtown is completed, it will have been a long time since any new residential buildings have been built downtown. There is no need to state the obvious, that no tall residential buildings have been built, because there have simply been none. The last new residential building to be built downtown was any one of the three towers of the Mansion House Center on Fourth Street, completed in 1967. Over forty years later, we await the next installment in the very limited and erratic story of downtown apartment building construction. (Our last tall building, the maligned Thomas Eagleton Federal Courthouse, arrived in 1997.)
The Roberts Tower’s architects are unheralded, and I cannot draw any name when asked who she or he is, or who they are. All I know is that the design is a suitable modern building, disgraced only slightly by the oh-too-silvery reflective glass being used to clad it. While I appreciate the break from the minimalist humdrum that inhibits contemporary architects, I am not impressed with the awkward reference to 1980s postmodern glazing trends. I’ll admit that the greenish reflective glass shown in early renderings of the Roberts Tower would have been no better. At least views of the rear elevation of the Old Post Office will be enshrined in the wall as well as — unfortunately, for the most part — any elements of Old Post Office Plaza that catch the mirrored surface.
On the matter of Old Post Office Plaza, there is no denying that the block is playing out very much like the vision shown in the 1974 Downtown Plan produced by PGAV for the Downtown Partnership. While we did not get the sunken plaza shown in the rendering, we did get a plaza and a narrow concrete tower in line with the south elevation of the Orpheum Theater. Alas, the 1974 plaza looks to be far more humane than what was built. Hopefully the Roberts Tower outshines the tepid hulk envisioned by planners back in the day. Architecture, supposedly the realm of innovation, is more often the repetition of concepts through new expression. That is, it may have been 1967 when downtown’s last high-rise residential building was completed, but forty-three years later have seem to have progressed to 1974. That’s not terrible — Mansion House is still lovely despite some recent muddling.