‘An icon in spite of itself’

Elihu Rubin ’99, assistant professor of architecture and urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture, published a history of Boston’s iconic Prudential Center in May.
Elihu Rubin ’99, assistant professor of architecture and urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture, published a history of Boston’s iconic Prudential Center in May. Photo by Leah Motzkin.

Elihu Rubin ’99, assistant professor of architecture and urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture, published his latest book, “Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape,” with the Yale University Press in May. Rubin, a native Bostonian who also works as a documentary filmmaker and city planner, said he became interested in the Prudential Center not because the building is architecturally attractive or sound, but rather because it represents the interweaving forces that shape and change a city’s landscape. The News spoke with Rubin about the process of writing the building’s history and how a reader should approach the book.

Q How did you choose to write about the Prudential Center?

A The book started as a Ph.D. dissertation in the history of architecture and urbanism at UC Berkeley. I was looking to research an urban landscape from the ’50s and ’60s — a large, complicated place that I could analyze to uncover the forces that led to its production. That was my mission. I chose the Prudential Center despite the fact that it was not considered to be good architecture or urbanism. In fact, this made it all the more interesting — here was a building and an urban complex that Bostonians love to hate; it is an icon in spite of itself — yet plays a crucial role in the city’s history. Through the Prudential Center, I had found a vehicle to tell the broader story of how cities changed in the postwar period.

Q The book’s title, “Insuring the City: The Prudential Center and the Postwar Urban Landscape,” clearly hints at the main themes of the book. How does the book’s title reflect its message?

A On a visceral level, I like the ring of “Insuring the City.” The title alludes to the role that Prudential, a life insurance company, had in investing in American cities in the 1950s. At that time, the leaders of many rust belt cities, like Boston, were legitimately concerned about the future of the city. (Many of these cities, like Buffalo and Detroit, are still in an extremely uncertain position.) When Prudential decided to build its Northeastern Home Office in Boston — the Prudential Center — it was an important validation of the city’s urban future. In this way, Prudential helped to insure the future of the city.

Q Would you say that the book is accessible to a general audience or better for people with a background in architecture or another specific field. In other words, who is the book’s intended audience?

A I worked hard to make the book accessible to the general reader. There’s not a lot of jargon in the book. I wrote the book to appeal to people with a general interest in urban history, urban planning, architecture, business history, transportation and, of course, for those readers with a particular interest in Boston. The book tells a story, but it also represents original scholarship and the reader has a chance to sift through some of that material with me.

Q How does your book allow people without a basic understanding of architecture to connect to the building and recognize its importance?

A A reader does not need special knowledge to appreciate the book. That said, those who come from a specific background might pick up some aspects and nuances that others might ignore. My strategy is to get as many people as possible interested in the Prudential Center. There are many stories that can be told based on the “Pru” — I tried to take a place that you might think is boring and show how vital and connected it is to so many different urban trends.

Q How is the book divided into sections — chronologically, or based on different aspects of the building’s construction or importance?

A The book is organized thematically. Each chapter takes a different bite out of the Pru. The first chapter is about the patron, the insurance company, and shows how the Prudential Center in Boston was part of a broader corporate strategy. The next chapter sets the stage in Boston and discusses the city’s early efforts at urban renewal. The third chapter shows how the Prudential Center aligned itself with the “public interest” and thus merited a tax break from the city. I’m very interested in this topic, how the “public interest” is established and produced in cities. Chapter 4 discusses the highway connection and shows how the Mass Pike and the Prudential Center were joined as a single megastructural project. The fifth chapter is about the design and construction of the Prudential Center. The conclusion brings us up to the present and talks about the substantial renovations that have vastly altered the Prudential Center from its original design.

Q Which section of the book do you find most riveting?

A I am very enthusiastic about the Prudential Center. I’ve gotten hooked on the story. There are many subplots to the story and depending on the audience, you could tell it in any number of ways. That’s what I really like about the subject of my book: it creates many different opportunities for thinking about cities.

Q What do you recommend readers look for when reading “Insuring the City”?

A I want readers to be able to see the motivations of the different players, even when they disagree with them. Look for how Prudential, the corporate patron, positions itself in relationship to the “public interest.” And in terms of architecture, look at who Prudential chose to design the project and how it ultimately came together. I hope to disarm a few misconceptions about how large projects are designed and built.

Q What was your favorite part of the creation process?

A I really enjoy doing archival research. I get a real kick out of leafing through musty old documents. Whether they are the internal corporate memoranda that established the company’s policies or the records of the architect, Charles Luckman, and his firm’s efforts to realize the project. I love that part of the process.

Q What courses will you be teaching this year, and are your students going to be reading “Insuring the City”?

A This year in the fall, I teach a course with Alan Plattus called “New Haven and the American City,” which is an interdisciplinary course about American urbanism using New Haven as a key model. I teach my seminar “Urban Life and Landscape,” and I am asking my students to read “Insuring the City” as a model for how to study the urban landscape. I’m assigning it as much as a way to talk about methodology as for the story itself.

Q How does this book fit in context with other works you’ve created, either publications or films?

A My background is in documentary film, and I’ve made several films about New Haven and I hope to bring that sensibility about storytelling to the book. I think putting together a lecture is, in some ways, even more like documentary film. There are pictures in the book, but slide lectures — well, I use Keynote — are even more multimedia including a live action voice-over.

Q What are you currently working on?

A I’m working on several essays, some of which relate to another book project. It’s about cities, of course, but not just the American city this time. Ultimately, I’m hoping that the new book will address broad questions about urban sustainability and vitality. Why do some cities thrive while others fade away? How do we balance creative destruction with preservation? How much do we rely on “the market” and what is the role of “planning”?

Correction: Sept. 6

A previous version of this article and its photo caption misstated the title of professor Elihu Rubin ’99. He is the assistant professor of architecture and urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture.

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