site specificity and the Jurys hotel

boston police I.jpg

As I understand it, "site specificity"” is a sensitivity on the part of a work of art or architecture to the context in which it finds itself. 

One example is the garden in Toronto’’s chic, little downtown neighborhood called Yorkville.  This garden reproduces the lot lines on the houses that once stood on the garden plot.  It also represents the geographical and floral variation of Canada, with the forests of BC represented at one end and the shore line of the Maritimes at the other.  The garden is specifying of where its plot once stood in time and still stands in space.

Site specificity has found its way to my hotel in Boston, the Jurys.  This is located in a 1920s architectural landmark, the former Boston Police Headquarters.  In the 19th century, the Boston Police Force became a largely Irish American institution.  And it turns out that the owners of the Jurys, the ones who put up $60 million for the restoration, are from Dublin.  The Jurys embraces this historical "loop the loop”" with enthusiasm.  Think of us as a new Irish immigrant, here to celebrate, with this building, the old Irish immigrant.

It seems to me almost certain that the Jury’s hotel, had they done this restoration say 40 years ago, would not have embraced this building, and, if they had, they would have worked to efface its origins and their own.  Forty years ago, architecture in general and hotels in particular were sited in the modernist "everywhere” "space.  They looked to blend into the hotel scape and the Boston one.  More particularly, Irishness still carried the taint of a hardscrabble immigrant community, making it an unlikely historical reference for a hotel that reaches, successfully, for elegance.

Site specificity reopens locality and history as sources of the meanings on which capitalism can draw.  It will help capitalism fight off that long standing charge that is it the champion of uniformity.  In the Jury’s case it is not bleaching out the historical particulars but restoring and then celebrating them.

As I was arguing in an earlier post, I think we can look forward to a time when our local Starbucks will carry design references to the neighborhood, city, and region in which it stands.  This even as it carries the mark of a national brand.  This too will largely put paid to the intellectual’s insistence that the marketplace is the enemy of culture, difference, variation, locality, history.   In any case it moves us beyond the time that the best capitalism can do is the faux Disney tableaux, the cultural other or historical other in heavy quotation marks, sensitized, as those glassine bags used to say, "for your safety.” 

We shall see.  But I think the Jurys hotel in Boston says that if the intellectuals were ever right, they are now quite wrong.  More to the point, if capitalism is now an agent working for an ever intensified and integrated locality, things are going to get very interesting indeed.

3 thoughts on “site specificity and the Jurys hotel

  1. LK

    hi grant,

    i see your hotel in boston has a bar called “cuffs”. hopefully you’re enjoying it and not everyone knows your name.

    re the localization argument, i like the way it picks up on a recent thread about concealing and revealing.

    i wanted to share the followingre MTV as an early example of a brand that really got this importance of the local, and did so deeply. the following quote from their CEO tom freston tells the story i believe.

    If music is the language of the global masses, many might think music television can be easily packaged and sold to other countries. Not so, said Thomas Freston, chairman and CEO, MTV Networks. In a PricewaterhouseCoopers EMCSummit keynote interview, Freston revealed that localizationis absolutely critical for the company’s holdings—including MTV, one of the world’s best-known brands.“There is a perception that globalization is one thing fits all,”said Freston, speaking with PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Kevin Carton. “But the more local you are, the better off you are, that’s the bottom line. That’s the heart of our philosophy.”“There’s a ton of local content to compete with…All other countries have developed their own abilities to make videos or shows,” said Freston. “You want to be in the local language, you want to connect with the local person, or your business doesn’t really have any chance of growing.”Localization applies not just to the music and the content, he added. It also means having a business “on the ground that is staffed by locals who not only really know what they’red oing, but also understand the brand.”Because local groups know the culture, added Freston,“you must give them the authority to program these channels and websites as they see fit.”It is this level of control, Freston explained, that enables local affiliates to both reinforce a brand and connect withconsumers. In addition, local teams are supported by local research and data, he said. “We hire the right people, do the right research, and keep our finger on the pulse.” This philosophy has helped to ensure MTV’s success over the years, noted Carton.“ MTV and their networks include Nickelodeon, VH1, Nick at Nite, TNN, and CMT. Today,MTV is the world’s most watched television network, reaching 350 million households in 140 territories…and thevnetwork is still growing.”

  2. Jim

    I remember visiting Montreal in the early 80’s and seeing the Alcan building for the first time. I was told this was the first example of leaving the history, the facade in this case, around an office tower.

    Loblaws has done this exceedingly well. Despite having only a few store templates they give the store site specificity inside with a huge local wall mural and outside where feasible and appropriate. The murals are generally of a nearby neighbourhood feature. The exterior is generally done by maintaining the some of the historical elements.

    The Loblaws store in Montreal near the Olympic stadium is an incredible example. The site was a train, (and sometimes tank), manufacturing site. The Loblaws store still has a huge crane inside the store, maintained the original exterior walls and has kept many of the exterior walls from the warehouse and other buildings around the parking area.

    I think in some cases this is how Loblaws has successfully received rezoning, but it is sure a good idea for a place like Montreal where Loblaws is a new brand, and an English brand. There are other factors also, but the store is doing very well.

    Perhaps the more modern we become the more we appreciate those relatively few places where the past is still today.

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