Wake Up and Smell the Real-Time Data

Almost every morning, I stop at the Dunkin' Donuts Express in Back Bay Station as I transfer between the Commuter Rail and the Orange Line.  I only go two stops, which is just enough time to finish my iced coffee and get to studio at least partially awake.  The reason I don't stop into that Dunkin' on some mornings is because of one thing: the sign in the main concourse telling me that I have 2...1...minutes before my train arrives.  But more often than not, I emerge from the Commuter Rail platform, take a quick glance at the sign, and see that I have at least 4 minutes, which I - and many other passengers - have learned is just enough time to get my coffee and still make the train.  

Boston's Back Bay Station, here seen in it's best light

 

One morning when I had a few extra minutes, I noticed a plaque behind the cashier awarded to this particular Dunkin' for having the greatest increase in customers in its district in 2013.  It took only moment to connect the dots: real-time data about train arrivals had been introduced at Back Bay in late 2012.  Over the next year, this Dunkin' had seen a marked increase in its customers despite having no street frontage, being tucked away in Back Bay's rather dingy concourse, and the fact that no new buildings or transit services had been introduced near there in 2012 or 2013.  The increase, therefore, was simply because commuters, like myself, now knew exactly how long they had before the next train arrived and could decide to grab a coffee before heading down to the platform.  

When real-time data was first being implemented in T stations, a favorite phrase thrown around by the T and its advocates was that people "would know if they had time to grab a coffee".  Based on the plaque at Dunkin' Donuts Express, it seems that they were absolutely right.  This is data and its implementation having a direct, positive economic impact on the city, and the trickle down impacts are probably even greater than the increased sales at this Dunkin' location.  In the past year, a juice bar and Tasty Burger have opened up in Back Bay Station, and I'm sure that being able to point to how well Dunkin' is doing helped convince these companies to move in.  This is just a small - but very clear - sign of how implementing data can significantly improve the urban experience.  As Boston teams up with companies like Uber and Google to access their datasets and employ them in tangible ways, the foundations of an interactive, 21st-century city will be built.  It is up to us as citizens and critical thinkers to capitalize on these tools, consider their successes and failures, and appreciate that we live in a better city because of them. 

500 Boylston Development Threatens to Deface an Icon Before It Even Becomes One

A recent proposal to squeeze an infill development into the courtyard of the 500 Boylston tower has received praise from urbanists and architects who argue that Boylston Street needs enhanced street life, denser development, and greater activation.  Generally, these tenets hold true on most streets in most cities, and while one of the lessons of Boston’s dalliance with Modernist urbanism in the mid 20th-century was that we should keep our streetwalls tight and our neighborhoods dense, infill for the sake of infill is a precept that we have a responsibility to question.  While CBT’s proposed design for the infill project is not a bad one, 500 Boylston’s courtyard is not a space we can afford to lose to a glass box, however engaging its undulations and renderings may be. I have written previously that as an architecture, 500 Boylston is more than meets the eye.  Rather than simply being another Postmodernist (PoMo in the parlance of the moment) office tower, Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 1987 project for Hines Interests is actually one of Boston’s and Postmodernism’s greatest architectural lessons, and as such, is worthy of preservation in its current form.

The proposed infill development by CBT Architects, from the PNF filed with the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

The proposed infill development by CBT Architects, from the PNF filed with the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

bit of history: I have argued in the post linked above that Johnson/Burgee - but likely Johnson in particular - were using 500 Boylston as a way to show Boston and the world that pushing Postmodernism to its logical extreme is not the way for architecture to be moving.  The building is therefore both the style perfected and a scathing indictment of it.  At the time of its conception, Bostonians had fallen in love with Postmodernism’s faux-classical approach to architecture, which involved slathering buildings in every bit of ornamentation possible as a rebuff to the austere severity of Modernism, and PoMo towers were popping up all over the city.  Johnson, one of the greatest Modernists of his day, embraced PoMo’s oft-garish expressionism but ultimately returned to the purer forms of Modernism in his later work.  Nevertheless, Boston wanted PoMo, and the BRA was pushing the development of towers along Boylston Street as part of its High Spine masterplan.  Unsurprisingly, the development of 500 Boylston was still fraught with controversy.  Neighbors and neighborhood associations battled Johnson/Burgee and the original developers resulting in the elimination of a few floors (sound familiar?) and giving the tower its rather squat proportions.  The tower was ultimately built and dressed to the nines with every ornament Johnson/Burgee could throw at it, and when finished Bostonians decided they hated it.  What was supposed to be an identical tower next door was scrapped because of community opposition to the tower’s squatness and an apparent realization that Postmodernism at its most Postmodernist extreme was actually something quite distasteful.  Robert A. M. Stern was brought in to complete the second tower in a quieter, less opinionated fashion, and one can only assume that Johnson felt some vindication that Bostonians, it seemed, had learned their architectural lesson of the ‘80’s.  

500 Boylston seen from within the courtyard, its Palladian window form and courtyard ornamentation are highlighted. 

500 Boylston is a building we should respect not only because through its sagacious teachings it is a perfect architectural lesson, but also because it presents us with some very unique design.  As the ultimate PoMo building, the tower’s form is taken explicitly from the Palladian window, itself a classically ornamented fenestration designed by original “starchitect”, 16th-century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio.  But the real brilliance comes in the courtyard, the main part of the building currently threatened.  Here, Johnson/Burgee’s ornamentation really comes to life at the human scale.  Columns and arches fly overhead to aggrandize the main entrance. Pilasters, quoins, and balustrades break down the tower’s massing into architectural symbols that speak “power, strength, wealth, stability” causing almost every tourist or first-time passerby to stop and take a photo of a building that imparts a sense of timelessness despite being only 28.  What is it about the courtyard at 500 Boylston that feels so familiar?  It is oddly enchanting and inviting even if frequently unpleasantly windy.  The je-ne-sais-quoi of this place is that we have all seen it before, either in picture or in person.  It is a miniature, abstracted, replica of one of the most famous squares in the world: St. Peter’s.  Yes, The Vatican comes to Boston at 500 Boylston.  The curving arms of the tower’s podium mirror Bernini’s massive colonnades, the triptych form of the tower’s main entrance mimics the massing of St. Peter’s Basilica, and the proportional placement of the courtyard’s twin fountains is all but identical to those at St. Peter’s.  It’s true, the famous obelisk is absent, but is replaced by a small obelisk in each fountain.  This is not simply some slap-shod windswept plaza, this is the culmination of an entire architectural style.  Whether or not we agree with the conceptual foundations of Postmodernism, learning to recognize, accept, and respect its perfection is part of becoming the cultured, creative, global city that all Bostonians aspire to.  

 

 

The references to St. Peter's Square (right) are particularly evident when seen from above.

There will, inevitably, be backlash to my argument that 500 Boylston’s courtyard is a unique space worth saving, so let me take a few moments to respond preemptively.  First, to Equity Office Properties 500 Boylston’s current owner and would-be developer of the infill project, I understand that Boston’s current economic and development climate makes this opportunity hard to pass up, so let me offer an alternative.  When Robert A. M. Stern was brought in to design the neighboring tower, 222 Berkeley, he liked the idea that both towers should have some sort of open space and so built an atrium of about the same size as 500 Boylston’s courtyard in the interstitial building.  The atrium is essentially impossible for the public to access because of 222 Berkeley’s security, is massively underused even by the tower’s office workers who find it cavernous and banal, and would not be terribly desirable even if it were more accessible.  Infill there.  Yes, it would be more expensive to build into it than it would be to fill 500 Boylston’s courtyard, but you would preserve a space that will someday be seen as a crucial moment in American architectural history.  

 

 

Robert A. M. Stern's 222 Berkeley is seen at right in this drawing.  Its atrium is under the curved glass between 500 Boylston and 222 Berkeley.

To my fellow architects, urbanists, and spatial thinkers who argue that Boylston Street needs the activation that would come with this infill project: you are right – sort of.  To be honest, Boylston Street is in good shape as far as activation goes; you might consider focusing your advocacy elsewhere like Dudley Street in Roxbury or Blue Hill Ave in Mattapan.  Nevertheless, to replace the atrium at 222 Berkeley, Equity could place a retractable glass dome over Boston’s miniature St. Peter’s square and enclose its front with glass and doors without demolishing any of the existing details or destroying the building’s massing.  The result would be a publically accessible year-round space protected from the bothersome wind, not unlike Don Chiofaro’s Aquarium Garage tower proposal.  This enhanced courtyard could host more retail and dining options, and rethinking the way that the current retailers use the existing window bays could provide a more diverse interaction with the street.  (Do Talbot’s and Marshall’s really need to use every window bay both inside and outside the courtyard?  I don’t think so).  Ask yourselves, is infill for the sake of infill always the answer?  Should we scour the city filling every courtyard and gap we can find?  There goes the BPL’s courtyard, the windy, Brutalist Christian Science Reflecting Pool, and how about that silly Paul Revere Mall leading up to Old North Church?  What a waste of space right on Hanover Street! Certainly, some of these spaced could be filled without any great loss, but 500 Boylston’s courtyard is not one of them. 

Finally, to future architecture students, historians, and Bostonians writ large: if my advocacy results in the change of course I hope for, you’re welcome.  Here in 2015 Postmodernism is just beginning to have its moment, reflected by the fact that I can say PoMo somewhat un-ironically, and that the work of architects like Michael Graves is finally getting the recognition it deserves.  When you read this and Postmodernism has found its place in the pantheon of interesting if imperfect architectural styles like Modernism and Brutalism, please take a moment to go look at 500 Boylston and consider that it is the entirety of a style synthesized and perfected into one building.  If I fail, and 500 Boylston’s courtyard is destroyed, the building made impotent, and the cause of preserving Postmodernism’s worthwhile artifacts irreparably damaged, forgive me.  Forgive all of 2015’s Bostonians; Government Center, Central Artery, 500 Boylston – it seems that even when the master presents the perfect lesson, we cannot learn.  Truly, we know not what we do.  

This post originally appeared on BostInno.com.

"THE" and LA's New Geography

Perhaps as a result of a long winter that’s still hanging on for dear life in Boston, I’ve had warm places on my mind recently.  A phone call with a cousin who lives in LA prompted me to try to put into writing something I’ve been thinking about ever since my visit there two (warm, warm) summers ago.  I recalled that as I planned my trip I would ask friends I was hoping to see where in LA where they lived, and their responses invariably came in relation to highways: “West of the 405, north of the 10”, “In the Valley, just off the 5”.  I would usually have to ask "which Valley?" because LA has many and I quickly learned that “the Valley” means different things depending on where you live.  When I finally got to LA it felt like I was in an episode of “The Californians”, Saturday Night Live’s parody soap opera about Angelinos who speak only in terms of major roads and highways.  As I explored LA (I was determined to use only public transportation as a test of its efficacy), something bugged me about the way my friends and Angelinos writ large were speaking, and I slowly realized it was because of their use of one of English’s simplest words: the.  That was it, they used “the” strangely.  Never in my life had I heard people put our only definite article before a highway number, but they did it incessantly, not even questioning that one cannot have “the 405” because what is "a 405" anyway?  I wondered what were the special conditions that could cause the city-state of LA County to collectively - and seemingly unwittingly - decide to speak this way and what does this say about the way they perceive and interact with their space.

Morning rush hour on "the 5" (Author's collection).

Angelino’s use of “the” has aggrandized highways into geography.  Because of the way these megastructures dominate the city’s landscape and facilitate a complete ignorance of any existing natural geography they have become the only meaningful demarcation of space in LA.  LA’s auto-centric culture means that for millions of Angelinos, highways are the only type of geography they interact with on a daily basis.  Whereas other cities might define neighborhoods or regions by rivers, hills, or parks, when I asked if “East LA” meant east of the LA River, the most common response I received was “where’s the river?”  Responses from more astute observers of the built landscape were varied.  Depending on where they lived, East LA could mean east of the 405, east of Downtown, or east of  the “insert-north-south-highway-number-here”. Even though the LA River effectively separates Downtown from everything east of it and “the 710” follows the River for much of its course, not once did someone say “east of the river”.  Imagine if to define Cambridge from Boston one said “north of Storrow Drive” instead of “across the Charles” or to distinguish Manhattan from Brooklyn we said “on the other side of FDR Drive”.  Even in places where roads are used as defining boundaries, “the” is rarely used.  For example, Detroit is not defined as within “the 8 Mile”. 

Including on- and off-ramps, Highway 405 cuts a 28-lane gash through Los Angeles.  Soaring high in the air and creating a dark, empty space beneath it, the 405 easily provides a sufficiently vast urban chasm to encourage different types of development on either side of it. (Google Maps)

There are some crucial exceptions: when speaking about a highway as a noun, “the turnpike”, “the Beltway”, “le Peripherique”, our definite article is requisite because there is no other way to know which turnpike or because “inside Beltway” is terrbile grammar.  In Boston one might say “take the Pike to 128”, but never “take the 90 to the 128” because frankly, you would sound stupid.  Paris’s Peripherique is an extra special case, though.  A bounding highway built over the original city walls, it borrows its modern role as a definer of space from its predecessor, and even today is seen as a great divide between wealthy, museum-esque inner Paris and its poorer, economically depressed suburbs, though efforts are in place to change this as part of the massive Grand Paris masterplan and a comprehensive approach to creating an inclusive transportation system.

Another important half-exception is one that I hinted at above.  The one type of geography that Angelinos do seem to recognize, or at least reference, is “the Valley”.  However, the idea of “the Valley” as a depression between two mountainous areas separated from another area is completely lost because highways make traveling through complicated terrain so easy and the confusion as to exactly which valley is the Valley suggest that Angelinos aren’t even sure what “the Valley” is or means.  To most, the Valley is the San Fernando Valley, home of movie stars, mansions, and film studios, but in East LA (wherever that is), “the Valley” refers to the San Gabriel Valley named for the San Gabriel Mountains to the north and the San Gabriel River that flows through it.  Even before the current drought, however, the river was little more than a linear patch of mud that few would have noticed while soaring over it on the 10 or alongside it on the 605.  Every Angelino knows where the 110 is, but few could define the boundaries of “the Valley”. 

The City of Los Angeles is a confusing and discontinuous jurisdiction within the patchwork of cities that make up LA County. (Google Maps)

So irrelevant are the natural, geographic defining lines of human space to Angelinos that armed with their “the’s” and highway numbers, they are frequently unaware of where the City of Los Angeles ends and another city like Manhattan Beach begins.  When asked in my very informal survey, few could definitively decided whether or not Manhattan Beach was the same legal jurisdiction as Los Angeles.  Urban sprawl has led to a complete erasure of even those boundaries set forth by man in policy and law books.  All that remains as recognizable demarcation are the 8-, 12-, 16-, 20-lane car-rivers that fly like aqueducts 60, 80, 100, 120 feet in the air, causing tears in the urban fabric, shifts in street grids, and fluctuations in neighborhood economies that most elsewhere only geography has the power to do.

Left: Satellite view of the 110-105 Interchange, with Harbor Freeway Green and Silver Line Metro Station (Source: Google Maps).  Right: The view of Downtown LA from the Harbor Freeway Metro station, located vertically amidst the massive Judge Harry Pregerson Interchange, which has ramps that soar to 120 feet. (Author's collection)

The way that highways disassociate us from the standard human scales of time and space is a well-documented phenomenon, but in Los Angeles we see what happens when highways are the only scale of time and space.  The City, the County, the entire region in effect becomes tabula rasa regardless of existing built form under the crushing power of soaring highway pylons and massive cloverleaves.  Los Angeles is the only place in the world, that I know of, where the labeling phenomenon of “the” has taken hold so firmly that where denizens of other cities might say “the mountains” or “the river”, Angelinos will say “the 110” and “the 405”.  As our power to influence the built landscape at a massive scale increases, we must seriously question whether this lesson from LA shows that geography is replaceable if not replicable, and if so, what are the long-term consequences for a society that chooses this route?  How can you know how much water is in the river if you don't even know where the river is?

A Wag of Philip Johnson's (Middle) Finger

Few architects can claim to have two major projects in Boston’s exclusive Back Bay, fewer still on its grand thoroughfare of towers and luxury hotels, Boylston Street, and only one enjoys the prestige of two projects in Boston’s most renowned public space, Copley Square.  One of the most influential and controversial architects of the 20th century, Philip Johnson is the holder of this noble title, in addition to a Pritzker Prize and an AIA Gold Medal.  His two Copley Square projects – the Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library and the office tower, 500 Boylston – while less than two blocks apart could not be more distant conceptually and ideologically.  The BPL’s Johnson Building, while not terribly loved by Bostonians, is a culminating example of this prolific architect’s early work.  Its severe and austere massing, harsh poured-concrete, stark though dazzling atrium, and vast, open floor plans display Johnson’s absolute mastery of minimalist modernism and his ability to make brutalism a comfortable and even respectful style.  In extraordinarily stark contrast, Johnson’s 500 Boylston office tower designed in partnership with John Burgee is an effulgence of postmodernist ornamental expression, whose Palladian window form (and façade) and miniature St. Peter’s Square are so ostentatiously classical mimicry that closer inspection reveals the entire building to be Johnson’s critique of postmodernism as a whole. 

The main facade of 500 Boylston, displaying both the Palladian-form and detailed ornamentation. 

Johnson’s collaboration with John Burgee, which started in 1968 and ended on bad terms in 1991, was by far the most prolific time for both architects.  In 1984 they produced the highly controversial former AT&T World Headquarters in Manhattan that was, in most ways, a fairly straightforward modernist skyscraper apart from the glaring addition of a roofline designed to look like a massive pediment.  This neoclassical cake-topper heralded in Johnson/Burgee’s explicit interest in postmodernism, yet the AT&T building does not ignore Johnson’s purely modernist roots.  Only three years later the cake-topper consumed the entirety of the cake.  When Johnson/Burgee produced 500 Boylston, rather than simply employing a classical element as adornment they used a Palladian window as the basis of the tower’s form.   The tower is further cloaked in balustrades, pilasters, arches, quoins, columns, coffers, and nearly every other classical decoration imaginable.  The design shows no restraint; in direct opposition to Johnson’s building at the BPL it is a heavy-handed investigation of “going too far”. 

500 Boylston's plaza is a miniature abstraction of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican: oval in plan, enclosed by columned arches, with symmetrical fountains, each featuring an obelisk of sorts. 

It is entirely possible that what at first appears to be a stylistic dalliance is actually an architecture lesson dressed in classical clothing.  Johnson is trying to explore and indict what happens when one pushes post-modernism to its logical extreme.  With the simplicity of modernism as Johnson’s conceptual and stylistic foundation, the dogmatic ornamentation of 500 Boylston is almost too textbook to be taken seriously.  With this building, Johnson is teaching the architecture world that postmodernism at its peak is something garish and devoid of any real significance or meaningfulness. The building was intended to have an identical counterpart next door: two massive Palladian windows onto the architectural soul of Boston.  However, once the first tower was completed citizens, architects, planners, and preservationists all hated it and halted the construction of the second.  Even architecturally self-righteous and oft-parochial Boston could not stand to see its opinions scrutinized under Johnson’s towering lens.  Instead, Robert A. M. Stern was brought in to complete the neighboring tower as a quieter, less opinionated building. 

Elevation of Robert A. M. Stern's replacement (right) for the second tower at 500 Boylston. 

It is hard not to imagine Johnson finding some sense of vindication in this.  He succeeded in creating a building so meticulously true to what was called for that even its proponents were forced to sheepishly admit that they had done wrong and learned their lesson.  This brilliantly subversive act took down post-modernism simply by perfecting it.  500 Boylston, therefore, is a building that speaks not to the heyday of postmodernist expression, but rather to Johnson’s illimitable talent as an architect capable of mastering all styles, even those with which he disagreed, and bringing critical thought and valuable questions and lessons to every project he approached. 

The Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library with 500 Boylston in the far background. 

Toward a Respectful Modernism


About a week ago I was fortunate enough to have a map of Rome’s transit system that I created be presented from Boston’s Mayor Walsh to Rome’s Mayor Marino.  Later that day Mayor Marino gave a lecture on Rome’s transportation concerns at the Boston Society of Architects where I met him and spoke with some of his aides, all of whom expressed that their main focus in Rome is on modernizing both the city’s built form and image.  This, of course, is no small task in one of the world’s great ancient cities where nearly all of the desirable land is built upon, and most of it is home to structures and spaces that carry a landmark status for a variety of reasons.

Mayor Walsh presenting Mayor Marino with the map I designed as a gift from Boston to Rome.

It’s an interesting problem to contemplate in the context of Rome, Boston, or really any city with an architectural legacy older than three generations or so – say 90 years (I would worry about modern contextuality in Tel Aviv, but not in most of Dubai).  Keeping in mind the role that design plays in how people perceive a city’s image, how can we design buildings and spaces that successfully feel modern and forward-looking, while at the same time are respectful of the landmark status of their surroundings without bordering on mimicry? There are a variety of noteworthy approaches, Postmodernism itself likely having been the most sweeping; indeed, it was a trend whose grasp Boston is still struggling to escape.

With its massive Palladian window form, columns, tiling, arcades, and ornaments, Philip Johnson's 500 Boylston is a good example of the post-modernism legacy left in Boston. 

While talking to Mayor Marino’s aides, I said, “What if we did a beautiful modern information pavilion in the piazza between the Coliseum and the entrance to the Forum?”  The combined gasp of shock and expression of exhausted defeatism that I received in response said it all: “Been there, tried that”, “I wish”, and “Insantity! But just maybe…” Such was the reaction from a forward thinking, 20-something year old tasked directly from the Mayor with modernizing Rome’s own image of itself – I could only imagine what the general populace would think. 

 In Rome two main methods have or are currently being tested to combat the fact that “brilliant modern architecture” is not the first or even third thing that comes to mind when discussing the city. The first is along the lines of Paris’s La Defense model whereby modern structures are built far away from the city center (called Centro Historico in Rome’s case) and are clustered together in a campus to avoid interaction or disruption of the Ancient, Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance structures in the more densely populated and visited parts of the city.  This has come in two forms: the construction of the EUR campus far to the south of the Campo Marzo (the part of the city that most people think of as downtown Rome), which Mussolini built in a high fascist modernist style to host the 1942 World’s Fair, and the much more recent construction of a modern arts district to the north of the Campo in the Flaminio neighborhood where Santiago Calatrava designed a bridge, Zaha Hadid did the MAXXI, Renzo Piano designed the Parco della Musica, and a variety of ‘60’s sports structures remain from the Olympics.

The EUR Campus south of Rome.  At the center-bottom is the Palazzo della Civilità Italiana, the complex's architectural centerpiece.

The approach being undertaken more recently has erred on the side of integration rather than the distant separation and observation achieved by far-flung campuses full of contemporary buildings.  In the Testaccio and Ostiense neighborhoods, a short subway ride to the south of the Campo and within walking distance of many famous monuments, the city government is attempting to bring vitality to abandoned military and industrial facilities now surrounded by 19th- and early 20th-century apartment buildings.  In Testaccio, the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea di Roma (MACRO) was opened in 2003 as a renovation of a massive slaughterhouse within walking distance of such monuments as the Pyramid of Cestius and the Circus Maximus.  Two subway stops to the south, the city is building its new offices not far from the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, thereby freeing up the space they currently occupy in Michelangelo’s Campidoglio to be used as a museum and simultaneously bringing new life to Ostiense. 

A four-story bamboo tower was constructed as part of an exhibit at the MACRO last year in Rome's Testaccio neighborhood. 

A similar approach has been undertaken in Boston by the city government, which has put a massive investment into the Dudley Square neighborhood in Roxbury through the renovation and expansion of the Ferdinand Department Store into the Dudley Square Municipal Building which will be home to the headquarters of the offices of the Boston Public Schools.  The project hopes to enliven the area by providing new retail opportunities, office space, and a significantly larger working population. 

A rendering of what the Ferdinand Building will look like once its transformation into the Dudley Square Municipal Building is complete. 

Impressive as the endeavors here discussed by both Boston and Rome have been, they are primarily urban tactics to the integration of modern buildings and focus on the introduction of these buildings as a means to improving economic vitality in struggling areas.  But what about architecturally?  What is required of architectural design to allow the respectful introduction of a new building into a city’s already-vibrant, historical center?  In Boston, the approach has become tired and sad; new buildings are clad in a patchwork of stone, glass, and brick as an attempt to both fit in and win the approval they need just to get built.  The city’s largest firms reuse and tweak their tried-and-true designs and concepts because the review commissions have become accustomed to them and complacent to pass buildings through approval with as little community opposition as possible thereby squashing any possibility for newer, more innovative designers with significantly fresher and better designs to offer proposals.  What proposals they do offer inevitably end up shirked off into the “thoughtleader” (read: “nice idea”) category. 

Architectural homogeneity in the form of hermetically-sealed stone and glass boxes runs rampant in Boston's Innovation and Seaport Districts.

A few firms have championed what I call the “scoop-and-plop” method, whereby the facades of buildings originally on the site are left intact and a new tower is introduced behind them so that, at least at the street-level, there is no tremendous change and the urban fabric is largely preserved.  More thoughtfully, Henry Cobb’s 1976 Hancock Place tower in Copley Square is both very respectful and very modern and has achieved a landmark status of its own.  By using highly reflective glass and coyly angling itself away from Copley Square and its many great architectural landmarks, the tower actually enhances them and the square through an added sense of placehood, intentionality, and a visually pleasing, well-proportioned contrast.

The Hancock Tower does its best to take a respectful backseat role to the architectural icons in Copley Square. 

But a project as masterful in its ability to tread all the right lines is rare, even nearly 38 years after the Hancock’s completion.  Boston, like Rome, must rethink its priorities; do we want to be a city that prizes blending in over moving forward?  Do we want to be the pretty city, the brilliant city, or the beauty-and-brains city?  Smart design is beautiful design and as designers we are challenged and tasked to bring together these goals harmoniously.  Cities too afraid to bring fresh, new ideas into their centers through architecture will find themselves going the way of Paris: a giant urban museum and playground of consumption for the super-rich.   

The Rise of the Seaport(s)

Last week I attended the South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan Community Meeting at the BCEC.  The meeting was in a back room of the incredibly massive Convention Center and while walking the full length of the building I thought to myself "If you can walk through four neighborhoods without leaving the building, the building is too big".  I then thought to myself, "Well, what neighborhoods?"  

South Boston Waterfront's potential neighborhood divisions

The meeting eventually broke down into a group of charettes for brainstorming ideas about how to deal with the future of the area's transportation needs.  The issue of the defining the neighborhoods that surround the BCEC has been playing loosely in my head for some time now, so the meeting seemed a good time to open up a discussion on this topic.  The area that the Boston Redevelopment Authority calls the "South Boston Waterfront" is roughly the same in area as the main peninsula of Boston: from Arlington St in Back Bay to the water's edge in the North End (this part of the city is home to about nine distinct neighborhoods).  The idea, therefore, that the area called "South Boston Waterfront" (SBW) could ever be thought of as one neighborhood is fairly preposterous, especially when one considers South Boston's growth and the degree to which the borders of Southie and the SBW are beginning to interact developmentally.  

The SBW is also called Fort Point, the Seaport District, and the Innovation District - all names that make sense to some degree but not as labels for the entire area.  The name of a place can significantly effect how people perceive it, and not having a name at all can be particularly challenging to an area trying to establish itself, especially if through that establishment it hopes to achieve a certain experiential and spatial quality and attract a specific type of people.  As development continues in the SBW and South Boston, I would propose that the City endeavors to determine clear boundaries for the neighborhoods that already exist and are growing in the area.  Furthermore, embarking on wayfinding and branding measures in these neighborhoods will help them grow into the healthy and vibrant types of places upon which the city hopes to build its future.  Below is how I would implement the nomenclature already in use to meaningfully define distinct parts of the SBW.

Fort Point  

By far the easiest neighborhood to understand, Fort Point is the 19th- and 20th-century neighborhood of warehouses now made up of artist communities, hip coffee houses, galleries, high dining, design offices, and museums.  It's a pleasantly healthy mix of uses, with offices, residences, and retail coexisting peacefully.  As new development has come to the area, it has been fit in fairly successfully as can be seen at Gerding Edlen's new residential building "315 on A".  The BRA defines the neighborhood as spreading from Seaport Blvd in the north to West 2nd St in the south, the Fort Point Channel in the west, and South Boston Bypass Rd in the east. Apart from the fact that this includes the Gillette Factory, it seems quite fair especially because it reaches out to Fort Point's little sister to the southeast, Channel Center.  The area between the two, currently occupied by parking lots, has been masterplanned to be built with the refined street grid of traditional Fort Point and will see a mix of contextually massed buildings and open space.  

Harborside

At present, the tendency is to refer to everything between Fort Point Channel, Reserved Channel, Boston Harbor, and West 1st St as the South Boston Waterfront; this is ridiculous as much of this area is neither near the water nor does it have any real interaction with it.  I would suggest that we reserve such a label for the portion of the city that is actually on the water and functions - or soon will - as a waterfront neighborhood.  Bounded to the north by the Harbor, the southern border from west to east would be Northern Ave to Seaport Blvd, Seaport Blvd until B St, B St until Congress St, Congress St until Starboard Way, Starboard Way to Triling Rd, and Trilling Rd back up to Seaport Blvd.  Essentially, the blocks adjacent to actual water or the piers upon which most waterfront-style action occurs.  

Seaport

The Boston Marine Industrial Park is the city's main functioning seaport.  Home to two drydocks and a variety of industrial uses, it is an area where residential development is prohibited. However, concentrating USPS, FedEx, Verizon and other similar large-scale infrastructural and industrial facilities here would open up a lot of land elsewhere for urbanistically healthier uses. It's a seaport, so we might as well call it Seaport. 

Convention Center

As the BCEC makes plans to expand, hotels get built along D St, and the intersection of D and Summer Sts becomes the focus of large, BCEC-centric development, I think that we are likely to see the rise of a new neighborhood within the next few years, especially as plans move forward for a new public space on D St.  Bounded roughly by Summer St, to the north, E St to the east, the BCEC to the west, and West 1st St to the south, this neighborhood will likely have a very processed vibe and be dominated by big-name hotels and fancy restaurants catering to convention-goers with company credit cards and therefore be set apart from the more vibrant and permanent populations of the surrounding neighborhoods. 

Innovation District

Much discussed and yet completely ephemeral, the "Innovation District" has yet to find itself physicalized.  A product of the Menino Administration's attempt to brand the SBW and rebrand Fort Point, the Innovation District is supposed to be a cross between arts and science, business and pleasure, professional lunches and high-society dinners.  I would argue, therefore, that it should eventually find its home anchored around District Hall in the neighborhood no-man's-land between Fort Point, Harborside, and Convention Center, the three of whose character it is essentially an amalgam of. Currently, much of this land is planned as "Seaport Square", whose slow construction may allow for a more organic and innovative development pattern capable of properly tackling some of the urban oddities like highway chasms, perpendicular streets that run 20 feet below each other, and the daunting fortress of the BCEC's western wall.  District Hall will be the Innovation District's spiritual heart as it weaves itself between the SBW's other neighborhoods acting as a conceptual and physical bridge between them all.  

SoCo

Despite my desire to see the Innovation District pop up in the area planned for Seaport Square, I think it will most likely find itself growing wherever the most amount of housing is built in the SBW.  The current dearth of available housing, whether for rent or purchase, means that the creative class who would otherwise inhabit the Innovation District and who already work in the surrounding neighborhoods are largely finding that they have to live further down the Red Line in Cambridge, Somerville, Southie, and Dorchester, which is also exacerbating the SBW's significant traffic congestion.  Wherever in the SBW reasonably priced housing is built, these people will move, in the process creating a modern neighborhood with a Fort Point-meets-Portland vibe.  While I think the area planned as Seaport Square would be ideal for large quantities of housing, there is also an unplanned industrial area to the south of the Convention Center neighborhood bounded by E St., West 1st St, Pappas Way, and Summer St., which has seen significant road investment lately, and while a bit off the beaten path and far from transit access, could prove quite valuable with some rezoning.  Regardless of whether this area is where the Innovation District plants its roots, I think it will have an accidentalness to its developmental nature and a name like "SoCo" (South of the Convention Center) carries a sense of self-referential irony that its likely inhabitants would appreciate.  

Mappuracy Matters

Over the past week, the MBTA has started rolling out their new maps, largely on Green Line trolleys.  I imagine the sudden release after months of silence regarding the fate of the winning map from last year's competition has something to do with the influx of visitors the city expected during Marathon weekend.  The Green Line and Silver Line to the airport are, of course, of particular importance to many visitors and runners.  Unfortunately, the new maps have a number of inaccuracies and confusing representational tactics throughout but especially along these lines.  A number of these problems are the result of the redrawing done to the map by the MBTA after it was originally submitted to them by Michael Kvrivishvili, but some of them were inherent in Kvrivishvili's map to begin with.  

Now after having created, publicized, and garnered a bit of praise and publicity for my version of the T map (not to mention printing and mailing 4x4ft versions to Secretary Richard Davey and MBTA GM Dr. Beverly Scott), I am uniquely frustrated to find that the map of a man who has never even ridden the T is being put into place and providing the citizens and visitors of the city I love so fiercely with incorrect and misleading information.  The T's new map can be seen below on the left and my version of the map is on the right. 

It is simply embarrassing for our city.

It is a step away from the new Boston of innovation, excellence, and thoughtfulness that our leaders tell us they are trying to create and that we are all fighting to see shine.

And frankly, I don't understand how a city purportedly trying to retain young talent and reinvent itself through the inventiveness of homegrown designers, thinkers, and similar professionals, chooses inaccurate maps made in Russia over accurate ones made in Boston.  

Full disclosure: I had a brief conversation with MBTA GM Dr. Beverly Scott last night and she expressed genuine interest in working together to correct these problems, which may or may not lead to replacing the map.

Rant completed, below are my comments on the shortcomings of the MBTA's new system map.  The images on the left are of the new map, and those on the right are the correlative part of the system as represented on my version of the map.

Innacuracies

Silver Line

By far the most problematic part of the map and, to be fair, the most difficult to represent accurately, is the Silver Line to the Airport and through Seaport.  As the T's new map depicts it, the SL1 goes to Terminal E at the Airport, then turns around and hits all the other terminals on its way back into town (maybe).  In the editing process, the T made the route curvy for no apparent reason and added that silly little arrow at the end that tells riders basically nothing.  To me it says "the SL1 travels in only one direction.  It goes to Logan and never comes back - have fun taking the Blue Line to town!"  Basically the same is represented for the SL2 in Seaport.  

What actually happens at the Airport is that after Terminal E the SL1 continues on its route without stopping anywhere until it gets back to Silver Line Way on the other side of the Harbor.  For its part, the SL2 makes a loop around the Design Center, making two stops, and then meets back up with its route at Tide St.  All of these crucial differences can be clearly seen on my map.   

This is also a good time to point out the glaring omission of the entire Fort Point Channel on the new map - something I deem inexcusable particularly on a map that decides (for no reason I can understand) to underlay a georealistic outline of the city instead of a much cleaner, abstracted, and crucially malleable outline.  Leaving out such an important geographic feature will have significant negative impacts on how people perceive and understand where they are when in the Fort Point/Seaport/South Boston Waterfront/Innovation District in relation to the rest of the city. 

Wonderland Buses

This has been a long-standing problem.  Because of the system of representation employed by the new T maps as well as the old ones, it is tremendously unclear what happens with the 116 and 117 bus, two routes that receive very heavy ridership and serve neighborhoods that are highly dependent on them.  The new T map suggests that the 117 stops at Revere Center (the brown dot on the left of the image), then Revere Beach on the Blue Line, then Wonderland, and then perhaps overlaps the route of the 116 to go back to Revere Center.  Similarly, it suggests that the 116's route is Revere Center, Wonderland, Revere Beach, Revere Center.  On my map, I made the important decision to show bus terminal stops so you can clearly see that the 117 terminates at Wonderland, and then retraces its steps through Revere Beach and Revere Center, and that the 116 also terminates at Wonderland and then heads back to Revere Center.  This is small, but so crucial. 

Dudley

Speaking of bus terminals, let's talk about Dudley.  Can anyone tell what's happening in the image on the left?  I honestly cannot.  The current representation makes it so difficult to keep the bus routes clear. By implementing a tactic for showing bus terminals on my map, riders can clearly see that the 1 and 66 buses end at Dudley instead of bleeding into other routes.  The same is true for the 15, 23, 28, and 22 at Ruggles where if it weren't for the terminals being shown it would look like all four routes overlap each other. Furthermore, I don't understand what's going on at the three Indigo Line stops that are shown.  Do the buses that go to each of them stop three times at each?  Is that what the three-pronged transfer means? On my map, passing through a station equates to a transfer - that seems fairly obvious.  Buses, particularly in Roxbury and Dorchester, are the workhorse of the MBTA and their representation on maps must be treated with care and precision.  

Confusions/Mistakes

Government Center

Showing that Government Center station is closed on printed maps means that within two years when the station reopens all the maps in the system will need to be reproduced, for such a cash-strapped agency, that seems a very liberal expenditure.  I feel that the stickers the T has been placing on maps throughout the system highlighting Government Center's closure are an ideal way to depict this. Additionally, the fact that the map doesn't have enough space to allow Government Center, one of the most important stations in the system, to have its label fully written out is concerning and doesn't bode well for any future expansions or edits.  

Angled Labels

It's generally agreed upon amongst transit mappers that angled labels are to be avoided as much as possible.  The new T map puts five of the most important Green Line stops, Kenmore through Boylston, at a 45 degree angle.  Furthermore, it repeatedly switches which side of the line the labels are on making for even more confused reading. 

This is also as good a time as any to point out that the georealistic map underlay makes for some very unsightly visual relationships.  Note how awkward "Hynes Convention Center" looks angled at 45 degrees against the Charles flowing by behind it.  

Green Line

In addition to not showing that the B, C, and E branches are not grade-separated and therefore operate more like streetcars, the new T map also suggests that the D branch is about the same length as the other Green Line branches and that Riverside is somewhere between Cleveland Circle and Heath St.  Of course, this is not true: the D is approximately twice as long a line as the B and C and nearly four times the length of the E.  This, along with not showing anu difference between grade-separated and at-grade lines can lead to significant confusion about what the Green Line is, how it operates, and what options riders have when planning a trip. 

Round Your Stroke

This is small but really irks me: someone forgot to round the stroke in Illustrator on the D branch so the stop mark for Riverside looks nubby and like it's half outside the line when compared to any of the other line termini.  

Where is Chinatown?

Partially because of the tightness that using a georealistic underlay creates for much of downtown Boston's depiction on the new T map, the label for the Chinatown stop on the Silver and Orange lines looks like it could apply to either South Station or Chinatown.  

There is also an incredible amount of inconsistency regarding SL to subway transfers.  The SL4 and SL5 never go underground or into any subway stations but the 1 and 2 do, this could be something worth noting on the map.  At South Station and Boylston it looks like the new T map is trying to illustrate this by using a split transfer symbol instead of a unified one like the SL1 and SL2 at South Station.  However, then the whole idea falls apart because a unified transfer symbol is used at both Tufts Medical Center and Chinatown where the SL4 and SL5 definitely do not go underground or into the station.  

Mapping America's Financial Nations

The biannual listing of the Global Financial Centers Index was recently released and the headline-worthy news from it was that New York City has overtaken London as the global financial hub, if only by two points.  Of greatest interest to me, however, are the numbers lower down on the list - New York and London will always be the first and second so the order of their seats at the top of the list are fairly insignificant to an evaluation of the meaningfulness of this ranking.  While Boston fell one spot to eighth and was overtaken by Seoul (which jumped three spots) it remains the second largest financial center in the country, with San Francisco being the only other American city in the Top 10 globally.  

I see regionalism as an extended version of urbanism: both disciplines being about understanding the identity and dynamics of a space, just at different scales.  My thinking on this has been largely informed by Joel Garreau's 1981 book "The Nine Nations of North America" and more recently by Colin Woodard's "American Nations".  Both books seek to explore ideas for how North America should and is already divided into nine or eleven distinct nations, respectively, largely along the lines of the regions we already understand to exist.  Their approaches are quite different, but what they are essentially attempting to explain is an understanding of how the disparate parts of the US actually function.

Joel Garreau's nine North American nations (left) verses Colin Woodard's eleven (right).  Their approaches vary on a spectrum from observational anthropology to ethnocultural historic analysis.  

Looking at regionalism and the idea of New England's nationhood through the lens of financial ranking may not seem to have much significance, but these sorts of statistics really can have an impact on the idea of a place, and engage in complex cause-and-effect dynamics.  A simple example: saying Boston is the second largest financial center in the US is likely to encourage further financial activity and investment, thereby bolstering and affirming its ranking.  

The Federal Reserve Bank has divided the US into not nine or eleven, but rather twelve distinct districts (Hunger Games, anyone?)  Boston is home to the Federal Reserve Bank for the First District, which is coterminous with New England and is the only district to be so neatly defined along the boundaries of a spatially and legislatively formalized region of the US.  In fact, 11 states are divided amongst two of the other districts signifying that the Fed is keenly aware of the arbitrary nature of most state boundaries and understands that it is crucial to see the US along more meaningful dividing lines.  Indeed, Missouri is the only state to host two main Fed banks (in Kansas City and St. Louis) as its eastern half is in the Eighth District and its western half in the Tenth.

The Federal Reserve Bank's 12 districts.  Black squares represent each district's main office in (1) Boston, (2) New York City, (3) Philadelphia, (4) Cleveland, (5) Richmond, (6) Atlanta, (7) Chicago, (8) St. Louis, (9) Minneapolis, (10) Kansas city, (11) Dallas, and (12) San Francisco. The red dots represent smaller branch offices, and the headquarters of the Fed in DC (which is not part of any district) is represented by the star in a black circle. 

In the small districts of the Northeast, every major city of the Bos-Wash megalopolis (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia [and Richmond if we wish to extend it that far]) is the home city for the main branch of the Fed.  As opposed to the western districts where the distances between main offices are vast, the Fed recognizes that the densely populated northeast has many regions (or nations) and therefore has provided each district with a main office in distinct capital cities in which to do business.  

Boston's Federal Reserve Bank Tower designed by Hugh Stubbins in 1969 is the tallest Fed building and sometimes referred to as the world's largest washboard.  

That Boston is understood by the Fed to be the seat of a distinct financial region, and is the US's second largest financial center, despite being the closest on the list to New York and having a drastically smaller population, suggests that New England as a region, district, and nation is uniquely solidified and bears a strong independence from the rest of the nation.  This certainly is not news to most New Englanders, but the degree to which Boston and New England can hold their own from a global financial standpoint is an important part of understanding the future role the region will play on the national and international stage.

MBTA Map + Proposal also on BostInno

After my interview with Nate Boroyan yesterday, I was asked to write a guest post for BostInno on my MBTA map for the existing system as well as my proposal for an expanded T system.  Check out the piece below!  It was quite such an honor getting to do this!

CommonRail Designer Talks Flaws With New T Map, Unveils His Improvements

The transit super-fans out there may recognize my name from an article that Nate Boroyan posted yesterday about me and CommonRail (see: above), my proposal for high-speed rail across New England. Today I’m writing about another transit mapping project that may hit a little closer to home for us Bostonians.

Anyone who followed the MBTA’s mapping competition this past year may know that the competition winner is a Russian graphicist who has never been to our fair city upon a hill.

I was in Paris at the time of the competition, and couldn’t get my map done on time. Upon returning home to Boston in May, I considered the final entries for the competition and when the winner was announced, was disappointed in the choice because - while generally an excellent map - it had some flaws that likely only a Bostonian well acquainted with the MBTA system would have noticed.

To me, Mikheil Kvrivishvili’s map’s greatest downfall was that it did not clearly distinguish between much of the B, C, and E Green Line branches, the Mattapan High Speed Rail Line, and parts of the Silver Line, none of which are grade separated, and the rest of the system, which is. To solve this problem, I made all non grade-separated service an outline of the corresponding grade-separated line.

I was also concerned about the fact that the winning map depicted bus lines in such a way that when two or more met and intersected it became unclear as to where one line terminated and the other continued. This can be particularly noticed at major bus terminals like Dudley, Ruggles, and Wonderland. To remedy this I devised a simple terminal marking and by making the lines thinner was able to include more information than Kvrivishvili’s map.

My map with markings...

 

Next, I attempted to tackle one of the greatest debates in transit mapping: that between georealism and pure diagrammatic abstraction. In the end, I weighed where it was important for people to understand accurately the geographic relationships between transit and the city - primarily in the downtown – and did my best to represent it by extending the D branch and reworking the SL2 in Seaport. I also cleaned up confusion about the order in which the SL1 visits the airport terminals.

The next challenge was my favorite because it begins to get at the future of how we will use the T. Between stations that are fairly close to each other, I added walking lines with Google estimated walking times. This is particularly helpful between Bowdoin and Charles/MGH for example, or Back Bay and Copley. It’s also a way of using time as an alternative measure to distance, much as I did with CommonRail.

Finally, my map also has a faded depiction of any under-construction or seriously planned additions to the system, most prominently the Green Line Extension to Somerville and Medford, but also the use of Track 61 between Seaport and Back Bay, the new Silver Line to Chelsea, the Assembly Sq. stop on the Orange Line, and the Boston Landing stop on the Framingham/Worcester Commuter Rail.

In addition to my new map for the existing system, I created a (very ambitious) proposal for a system of, say, 2024 that includes new Blue and Red Line branches, and a Silver Line train from Everett to Franklin Park that would replace the Sl4 & SL5. Both of these maps I printed at full-scale and sent to Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey and MBTA General Manager Dr. Beverly Scott. Within about a week Secretary Davey was kind enough to send me a handwritten note saying that he “loved” my ideas and that MassDOT is working hard to rebuild the excellent transit system the state once had.

As many may know, the MBTA had said that the first use of Kvrivishvili’s map would be at the recently rebuilt Orient Heights Station, but as far as I know, the map has not yet been put up there. The terms of the competition never promised that the winner would have their map used throughout the system, which has led me to wonder if the slow roll-out of Kvrivishvili’s map may mean that the one I created could still have a chance of seeing the light of day – or even better, the dark of a subway station. What do you think?"

BostInno Article about CommonRail

I was quite honored to be asked to do an interview about myself and CommonRail by Nate Boroyan at BostInno and here it is! 

"Here's the CommonRail. The rapid transit design proposes connecting some of New England's largest cities by train, at speeds approaching 100 mph.

While the design remains theoretical thus far, CommonRail architect Cyrus Dahmubed believes there is potential for this idea, or something similar, to become a realistic rapid transit option.

"I'd love to see some of it actually happen," Dahmubed told BostInno in a phone interview.

Dahmubed's CommonRail would offer:

  • Boston - Augusta: 1h 35min.
  • Boston - Newport/New Bedford: 40/30 min.
  • Boston - Providence: 25min.
  • Boston - Montreal: 2h 55min.
  • Boston - Hartford: 50min.
  • Boston - Albany (via Springfield): 1h 35min.
  • Boston - Albany (via North Adams): 1h 25min.

If this seems unrealistic – think again.

"Much of the track and right-of-way that it would need is already [in place] and would just need some upgrading and straightening," Dahmubed said, referencing comments he's received about the feasibility of his map.

A transit enthusiast, Dahmubed, born and raised in Newton, studied Visual and Environmental studies at Harvard University, before heading to Columbia University for a postgraduate program.

Despite being able to do so, Dahmubed doesn't have a license, he said. So, he's all too familiar with Amtrak trips and MBTA commutes from Riverside, he explained.

The CommonRail concept came to him about two years ago, when, Dahmubed said, he found himself making frequent trips back-and-forth, from Boston to Springfield, "visiting friends at Mount Holyoke."

"[The train trips] weren't great," added Dahmubed.

After spending a few months in Paris, traveling throughout Europe by train, he realized that New England would be the best region in United States for European-style rapid transit.

The CommonRail, he said, "would be a step forward for regional transport in New England." Now, people are starting to take notice of his concept.

He posted his CommonRail design on his website, iqubeddesign.com three days ago. And, before he knew it, the map found it's way to Curbedbefore cropping up on Reddit, this morning.

Before Dahmubed's CommonRail design surfaced on the internet, however, MassDOT secretary Richard Davey was presented with a personal print.

"I met [Davey] the other night," Dahmubed said, during a Capital Plan community meeting.

That wasn't the first time Dahmubed and Davey had corresponded, he explained. In fact, Davey had previously written him a note, after receiving fully printed copies of other maps designed by Dahmubed.

"In November," Dahmubed said, he sent Davey copies of a T map he had designed. That creation, Dahmubed said, he designed after noticing "some flaws" with the map produced by Mikheil Kvrivishvili, which was the winning submission in the MBTA map design contest."

Imperial Rome: A Future American Suburbanism

In a century or two when the majority of our nation has aged sufficiently to have a history worthy of retrospection, a train ride 10 or 15 miles outside most northern cities or 20 or 30 miles outside most southern ones will reveal a landscape to thrill and of our own century's most ardent ruin-porn seekers.  Economists, researchers, architects, urbanists, and (most) politicians are telling us that our nation, along with much of the world, is urbanizing; particularly in the US, our population is shifting back to urban centers as people become aware of the benefits, services, and comforts of urban living.  Simultaneously, disillusionment with the living patterns of the past 70 years is taking hold, the catastrophic folly of which can be seen most recently in the traffic crisis caused by a dusting of snow in Atlanta.  Moments like this illustrate far too realistically and far too late that our sprawling, tendrilled suburbs are causing us more immediate harm than environmentalists would have us believe is related purely to maintaining massive grass lawns in the middle of deserts.   

But I digress, the purpose of this piece is not to lecture professorially on the patterns that will likely lead to suburban downfall - for this one may turn to books such as Alan Ehernhalt's "The Great Inversion" or Vishaan Chakrabarti's manifesto "A Country of Cities".  Rather, I'd like to picture what the post-suburban, post-car America of say 2150 may look like - one specific aspect of it, in fact.  

Every major American city today is ringed by modern suburbs.  By this I do not meant cities like Cambridge nor towns like Concord (forgive the Boston-centrality of these examples - they were the first that came to mind, but frankly, examples such as these are few and far between in this country).  Any urbanist - or even any Bostonian - will tell you that Cambridge is no more a suburb of Boston than Baltimore is a suburb of the District of Columbia, and Concord, with it's rich and varied architecture, healthy town center, and two train stations is essentially now just a very wealthy country town.  

No, the suburbs of which I write are largely the places which before the year 1920 or so barely existed, if at all.  These are the frequently annexed, though far-out areas of cities like Houston, Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles.  But also of Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.  The startling thing about our nation's epidemic of McMansions is that it is just that: an epidemic, by definition nationwide, unconscious of regions, states, or types of cities.  Even the healthiest, most urban, most successful of American cities can lay claim to hundreds and in some cases thousands of square miles of suburban subdivisions.  

What I foresee for the lands of these McMansions that are unable to keep up with times by either pioneering new forms of urbanism for themselves, or more meaningful, healthy relationships with their primary cities is something not too unlike a story that was told a long time ago.  Very frequently, a particular period of Roman history during Late Antiquity is passed over in the average history class. This is almost understandable because it is the period when nearly nothing happened in Rome.  Really, nothing happened.  The city, for all its monuments, pomp, and circumstance, was essentially a backwater.  From the time Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Empire to his new city at Constantinople, the decline of Rome began.  As the power of the Empire shifted east, and the western portion of it collapsed during numerous eastward Persian pushes, Rome stagnated, its development seen as irrelevant and its population dwindling.  For nearly 500 years, the once-great city languished as the various fora of legendary past emperors were reclaimed for grazing sheep and their walls repurposed as supports for the shanties of shepherds.  

From the second to sixth centuries, Rome's population fell from over 1,000,000 to about 30,000. That's 97%. Yes, 97%. 

Finally, as Papal rule took hold, Rome began a renaissance with the Church as its primary proprietor.  With high demand to begin the reconstruction of the city, particularly to build a host of new churches, need for materials was great, but the trade and infrastructure that the city had previously enjoyed was all but gone.  The solution was simple from a Papal point of view: strip the valuable materials from the massive and opulent fora of the pagan emperors who had deified themselves through colonnades, statuary, and temples.  To this day, one can notice that churches throughout Rome feature differently colored columns, a fact which is usually cleverly disguised by creating patterns with the colors.  In reality, this is because all the rose colored marble columns of the desired length had been taken from one forum, and so the architects moved on to the next where they found ones of the necessary height, albeit green.

We move much faster now than they did back in the 5th century.  The social and demographic change that might have occurred over 500 years then can take place over 20 now, and so, I see a future for much of suburban America that is similar the stripping of the old Rome to build the new one.  The only real difference being that the new Rome will be the great cities of the future.  The McMansions of New Jersey, Long Island, and Westchester County will find their unpopulated homes being plundered for their marble countertops to be reused in the sky-high luxury towers of Manhattan and Brooklyn (okay, and probably Queens).  These homes will come to be seen as structures where the whole is worth much less than the sum of its parts.  First the marble and chandeliers will go, followed by extravagant bathroom fixtures and extremely valuable copper piping.  Shortly thereafter, the fourth-generation descendants of today's hipsters will go rummaging through in attempts to pompously discern for themselves any surviving pieces of custom woodworking, casting, or any other such craft.  Finally, the practice of lumber-construction towers perfected and nearly every spare inch of Earth's forests protected by one environmentalist group or another, the homes will be stripped of their wood frames and the plots of land left to be reclaimed by the forests with which the suburbs were always meant to have a symbolically tenuous, though distant, relationship.  

This will not be the case for every place now deemed a suburb.  The close-in suburbs, particularly the older ones with transit connections to their cities will likely urbanize over the coming years and save themselves from disassemblage.  The next set out will experience massive losses in value and likely become home to the poor and immigrants who cannot afford to live in central cities, as is currently the relationship Paris has with many of the areas immediately surrounding it.  But it will be the far-flung exurbs or the distant reaches of today's sprawling suburbs that find themselves as stripped as the Forum of Flavian and returned to the nature from which they were carved. 

Camp Kickst(Art)

IQubed Design was pleased to offer graphic design services to Camp Kickst(Art) - "a free camp where kids explore dance, music, art, and theater, and collaborate to create an original work of performance art".  The summer camp, based in Tiverton, RI was co-founded by long-time friend Audrey Emerson and is in its second year.  IQubed designed the playbill/brochures that will be given to the audience at performances.  Click here for more about Camp Kickst(Art), and check out the brochure below.  

Simmons Crossing

A perspective view showing preliminary massing of the library and community center (lower left), grocery store (lower right), retail structures (central left and right), and restaurant (top). 

IQubed Design is currently providing masterplanning and massing services and strategies for Simmons Crossing in Foster, RI.  The project is for the creation of a village center in the rural town, which currently lacks the traditional sense of centrality that typify New England towns.  The design includes spaces for a library, community center, country-style grocery store, ample retail, a restaurant, central Common, bandshell, and landscaping.  It also provides suggestions for increased pedestrian infrastructure in the surrounding area and the construction of a bus station that would be used by the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority for the extension of an existing bus line that would connect Foster with Providence.  

The design emphasizes the need for a sense of unique placehood to create a cultural, commercial, and civic heart for the town.  Please click here for more information and to support the project.