Reading Jerold Kayden’s article suggesting we catalog Boston’s Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS), I was struck by the simple elegance of this idea and the disappointing realization that I know very few of them. In an issue where much of the writing addresses the challenges associated with engaging the private sector and designing successful public spaces, Kayden’s message is positive and suggests an attainable course of action.
In support of that, I would like to add the Harvard Art Museums to the list of Boston’s public/private treasures. (I should note that I had the great fortune of collaborating with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop on this project, so I am certainly biased!) Throughout the design process, Harvard encouraged us to engage the greater Cambridge community for feedback about the architecture. We focused on developing a building that would “front” to the city as well as to the campus. We sought to be sensitive to the Carpenter Center next door and to the historic fabric of the original Fogg Museum.
But these considerations were all about the nature of the boundaries between the museums and said little about public access. It was Harvard that decided the ground-floor public spaces should be open and unfettered. It was the museums’ director, Tom Lentz, who decided to forgo the revenue of admission in order to share the iconic courtyard with the public. Through its new operational model and a design that includes entrances on multiple façades, the building welcomes equally those who plan to visit the galleries and those who might simply take a shortcut through the courtyard on their way to the T.
This sort of solution is very much ingrained in our practice, and we have several current projects, including ones at Northeastern and Boston University, that will add to the city’s inventory of privately owned public spaces. For projects like these, the approval process is not always linked to the inclusion of public spaces, but academic clients can often see the benefit of improving their connection to the city. This is more difficult, but not impossible, with non-institutional clients.
In an era where it is necessary to worry about issues of liability, maintenance, and return on investment, I am relieved to find examples of “win-win” solutions that seem to break the rules. While the Boston Redevelopment Authority can and should continue to push us from the approvals side of the equation, I hope that as design professionals we can find ways to encourage our clients to think as Harvard did in this case. Sometimes providing a true public amenity might be just what is needed to develop a compelling and engaging private realm.
Charles Klee AIA
The “Public/Private” issue captured ideas about many of the boundaries and mixing zones that exist in modern cities and raised some provocative questions about how we should govern and regulate space to meet the diverse needs of city dwellers. However, I hope a future issue will focus on that most significant and largest element of our communities’ shared space, comprising more than 30 percent of total land area: streets and sidewalks.
Why do I call these spaces shared? Because we cede streets and sidewalks to much private activity, including parking private vehicles for far less than the space would command as a rental unit. (Parking spaces are about 160 square feet, or half the size of the micro-units described in Aeron Hodges’ article!) And while our streets are busy with vehicles for several peak hours each day, from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. we could probably devote much of that space to a more diverse and interesting set of uses than driving.
When we turn to sidewalks, we truly encounter the city’s living room. Here we share travel, sightseeing, social life, eating, people watching, shopping, talking, and daydreaming. The fine-tuned balancing act that we expect from a city’s sidewalks — open to all 24/7, cared for by a wide cast of characters (municipal employees, private landowners, business associations, everyone who picks up a piece of trash or teaches their child not to litter), both loved and abused — is the most intensive and least understood piece of our shared landscape. Sidewalks are worth studying and managing better. How can we ensure that sidewalks are promptly cleared of snow? Repaved and maintained? Lined with healthy shade trees and flush tree grates? Swept and washed? A great city needs great sidewalks, and we need the design community to be part of that conversation.
I appreciated a distinctly Boston slant on an issue with relevance nationally and even globally. Having lived in Los Angeles and in New York City, I see how questions of public/private conflict and cooperation in Boston can become a case study for other, much larger cities.
The magazine came at the issue from a variety of angles and scales, whether Governor Dukakis railing about billboards or Aeron Hodges relating her life in a tiny Boston apartment to her upbringing in Shanghai. The review of the Rose Kennedy Greenway similarly evoked other places for me: The Greenway has the potential to be a living room for Boston, but it’s not the Ramblas or the High Line; there’s too much vehicular circulation and confusion about public and private responsibilities. And yet it opens up public access to the sea, and the idea that you can meander along the Harbor is a great asset for Boston. Public access to private shoreline property in the rest of Massachusetts, not to mention the rest of the world, is not so easy.
This is a magazine you want to read, not just look at the pictures as with many other architectural publications. That said, I especially loved Ralph Helmick’s image of hanging clocks (“Gallery”). As a sort of watch guy myself [Editor’s note: The writer and partner Robert Linn created The Thousand Watch Project], I resonated with that!
Keith Moskow FAIA
Moskow Linn Architects, Boston
Shawn Hesse, in his essay “Office space, the sequel,” captured the essence of our quest to modernize the workplace. In an age where knowledge work happens everywhere, the ultimate blurred line is the balance between work and life. The Workbar concept is that if work has become a bigger part of home, then life has to become a bigger part of the workplace. Workbar’s physical design and membership model are designed for people to have the settings they need to be productive and ongoing opportunities to connect with other members both socially and on business topics. Work can often be a lonely pursuit, especially for a new venture. Having a well-built space with a vibrant buzz of people provides motivation, inspiration, and connection, three critical attributes of a modern office environment.
Cofounder, Workbar, Boston
The “Finish” piece [“Darkness Visible”] about the shadows cast across Central Park by high-rises brings to mind the battle fought in the 1970s against Boston’s proposed Park Plaza urban renewal project. As envisioned, redevelopment plans for the area bordering the Public Garden and Boston Common, beginning at Arlington Street through Park Square, threatened the Public Garden with shadows from five to six buildings that would have towered up to 650 feet high.
The Park Plaza Civic Advisory Committee, formalized in 1973, was the first of its kind and the first to require studies of wind and shadow. It included members of the Friends of the Public Garden. We were determined to stop this proposal, which became a David and Goliath battle with the powers in the city arrayed against us: the mayor, governor, major newspapers, business and labor communities. When the state was finally forced to do shadow studies, it confirmed everyone’s worst fears that the Public Garden would be cast in shadow throughout much of the year.
Ultimately, citizen activism forced the project to be reduced in size, saving the Public Garden and Common from an overscaled development. The Friends continued to be vigilant watchdogs, spearheading state legislation in 1990 and 1993 that protects the Common and the Public Garden from shadows. While these laws have been helpful, they don’t fully address the cumulative shadow impacts during cold and dark months, which means that the parks’ quality is diminished during the time of year when pedestrians yearn for sun and light. The Friends will continue efforts to protect these parks from new shadows.
Member, Friends of the Public Garden Board of Directors, Boston