Johnson Building sets placemaking standard

A little over a week ago the renovated Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library was re-opened and it is a triumph. The dark and forbidding red-headed step-child of the Italian Renaissance palazzo that is the McKim Building has been filled with light and been made welcoming.


High planters and low signs once blocked ground floor windows and the upper windows had horrible shades  blocking them. The building has been made more permeable as well as less like a fortress. More importantly,. the Johnson entrance has been made into a place.

While architecturally it will never compete with the McKim entrance, it could supplant it as a gathering place.


Copley Square is divided from the library by Dartmouth Street, which is three lanes and one way. The width and setback along the street can result in cars going very fast along it, preventing a lot of interaction between the library and the square. Two sides of Copley Square are also front by imperable uses — Trinity Church, the John Hancock building and the Fairmount Copley Hotel — which have few users throughout the day, instead they’re concentrated at certain times. This isn’t to say that Copley Square is dead, it just has poor interfaces with its surroundings.

The library is further undermined by the way Huntington Avenue has been made into a highway with a connection to the Massachusetts Turnpike. It results in a massive gap between the McKim Building and the other buildings near it and concentrates automobiles in the area.

But the new Johnson entrance on Boylston Street is different. While Boylston Street is also one way, it’s only two lanes (and is much narrower than Copley Square). With active uses on either side and the food trucks parked near the Green Line entrance, the renovated entrance greatly contributes to the vitality of the arera. It invites people in and, through things like a table with outlets for charging phones and the bulk of the building providing shade, invites them to linger.

Lots of officials and developers talk a good game on placemaking, but the Boston Public Library has actually delivered.

One thought on “Johnson Building sets placemaking standard

  1. They really did a wonderful job with this renovation. I love the new trees, and the outdoor table is a really neat concept. People can stand and work outside (with access to power outlets.) I bet this will become a popular spot for phone recharging too.

    (Just a small correction to your post. Boylston St is 3 lanes, not 2. The City was talking a few years ago about reallocating one lane to create a parking protected 2-way bike lane, but so far there hasn’t been any progress on that…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s