Builders and kibitzers

As the June sun beats down, the buildings in Boston's Copley Place complex are filling out almost as if there were something organic about them, requiring spring and summer in order to bloom.

All winter long a sign proclaimed the future presence of the Westin Hotel, with only the token evidence of the framework of an escalator inside to substantiate that promise.

Buildings in the process of going up and buildings in the process of coming down both share the same gutted look. Nobody can quite believe in their existence, without people inside.

Bostonians, hurrying through the wind tunnel of Copley Square this cold spring, believed - as Bostonians have for almost a century - in two unmistakably alive buildings of the past. Few edifices in Boston are more cherished than that little masterpiece of American Gothic, Trinity Church, and the Boston Public Library - a ''palace for the people,'' its Renais-sance-dazzled builders called it.

These constituents of the late-19th century, as solid as the blocks of granite that form them, look across the square at the late-20th century on the rise - all prefab slabs and glass, set to the music of jackhammers.

Thus does the old American tradition of Protestantism and self-education confront today's going concerns: convention-luring hotels and Neiman-Marcus.

To make such a simple morality play out of this scene might suit old Boston snobbishness. But the impulse to fill space, to use space - to build - is a primal hunger. It cannot be so easily sneered at. Somehow, in the middle of a city, this hunger has chewed out 9.5 acres, even cantilevering itself into space above the Massachusetts Turnpike. No mean accomplishment.

How this mini-city within the city grows, like a special-effects movie running off a new scene daily for the kibitzers!

In November 1980, at the ground-breaking ceremony, the figure of $318 million filled the headlines. Sixty-five concrete trucks converged to pour the foundations and make new headlines. But by that time the figure was getting up to $375 million. Then suddenly everybody began talking about $450 million. Now the figure is a neat, round $500 million. More than a 37-story tower is going up - and up.

But what are estimates for? The fact is, the jigsaw at last is fitting together - all the pieces scattered for two years about Copley Square, like parts of the wrong puzzle. The glass-enclosed pedestrian's bridge is in place, and the eye can begin to imagine tenants in the two-level mall, from Yves Saint Laurent to Godiva chocolates. What elegant customers, what elite clerks we shall have here! But not yet.

Every building, while it is being erected, makes up for the lack of people inside by the people outside: the community of builders. This June they are everywhere, the men and women in hard hats. And they seem to have a primal hunger too. They cluster around canteen trucks and clump back and forth in their heavy boots to sub and sandwich shops in the neighborhood, currently doing the business of a gold-rush town.

Under the noonday sun, brown as berries, they eat from lunch boxes in the plaza adjoining Trinity Church, surrounded by vendors of ''gourmet hot dogs'' and sweet Italian sausages.

After lunch, a crane operator on the Copley Place project can look down on the exquisite little church and the Italian palace of a people's library and feel, if he chooses, a kinship. Copley Square began as the crossroads of two streetcar lines, and every building around it is still a meeting place, whether for worshipers or book-borrowers or quiche-eaters.

A builder of public buildings is in the business of providing communal way stations, and that central idea - giving the pilgrims a home away from home - has never really changed.

Just beside Trinity Church stands a statue by August Saint Gaudens of Phillips Brooks, a minister and humanitarian, as they used to say a century ago. Brooks is looking at neither the old Copley Square nor the new Copley Place but staring off into the middle distance in a third direction. Tactful man! He is described by his inscription as a ''lover of mankind.'' That pretty well covers the subject of Copley then vs. Copley now.

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