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From the executive director: Sparking a new design revolution in Boston

In Change, the Spring 2012 issue of ArchitectureBoston, guest editor David Hacin FAIA noted that BusinessWeek ranked Boston third behind New York City and Chicago on the list of top US cities for design in America. With that terrific national position, how can we do more to celebrate, leverage, and even monetize our unique and dynamic urban landscape—and the design culture that fosters it?

Similar questions and ideas often surface during my conversations with members. Some encourage the BSA and Boston Foundation for Architecture (BFA) to do more to educate the public about the importance of architects and architecture. Others observe that Boston still is known predominantly for old architecture and remains too conservative and restrained to fully promote contemporary design. Underlying all these conversations is a question about whether we are taking full advantage of our design and architectural strengths.

Few American cities (maybe New York City; Washington, DC; and Chicago) have the range and diversity of meaningful architectural landmarks that we enjoy. The public selected seven Greater Boston buildings in AIA’s 150 Favorite American Buildings and six more were deemed significantly relevant by surveyed architects. We boast 10 AIA National Honor Award winners and can point to 69 Harleston Parker Medal recipients as being the most beautiful building in Greater Boston. We are also home to one of America’s most controversial buildings—Boston City Hall, which is revered by some yet often appears on popular press lists as the ugliest building in the US. I could go on, but I’m preaching to the choir.

One of our challenges now is learning to attract even more choir members who might then become our region’s design aficionados, enthusiasts—even zealots.

Let’s start by taking a page out of Chicago’s playbook. In 1966, the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) began as a community group coming together to save from demolition the Glessner House, an H.H. Richardson-designed architectural masterpiece. Over the next 47 years, CAF grew to provide walking tours, exhibitions, education programs, the famous Architecture River Cruise, and more. Today CAF engages an annual audience of nearly 500,000 visitors, offers more than 5,000 tours, and manages an operating budget of $11.4 million. CAF embraced Chicago’s architectural identity to become the city’s leading architectural cultural organization, capitalizing on and fostering the city’s design culture.

The BSA and BFA are positioned to do something similar here to expand public engagement with Greater Boston’s fantastic architecture, urban design, and design culture. A new interactive exhibition featuring a model of Boston’s downtown and waterfront, as well as the region’s architectural landmarks, is being created for the first-floor information center at BSA Space and will open this winter. Architecture Cruises, a partnership between the BSA, Boston By Foot, and the Charles Riverboat Company, highlight some of the area’s best historic and contemporary design along the Charles River and Boston Harbor. KidsBuild, which drew more than 500 people in 2013, and monthly family days, led by Polly Carpenter AIA and Learning By Design, introduce young people to the creative power of design through fun hands-on activities. Nearly 400 podcast interviews with architects and cultural leaders are now available through our partnership with cultureNOW, a “museum without walls.” Common Boston, a volunteer program of the BSA and BFA, celebrated its sixth year as Boston’s premier architecture festival, featuring forums, tours, exhibitions, design races, architecture scavenger hunts, and the almost-famous dParty. These are but a few of the ways you, as members and supporters of the BSA and BFA, are building Boston’s architectural “choir.” We need your help—specifically, your knowledge, design intelligence, participation, and support—to continue to build on this very good start.

We also continue building our partnerships with others dedicated to sharing design with the public, including Boston By Foot, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Institute of Contemporary Art, area universities, the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, local convention and visitor bureaus, and other civic-arts and tourism offices. Moreover, we have the opportunity to engage the city’s newly elected mayor this fall in the big discussion about recognizing and celebrating Boston as a dynamic architectural design hub.

Why do we do this? To paraphrase Hacin’s preface to “Why Boston?” in ArchitectureBoston’s Spring 2012 issue, our goal is to become the incubator, supporter, and cheerleader to capture the imagination of the world, firmly establishing “Boston’s place in the vanguard of the global design conversation” and sparking a new design revolution in the region.

Contact me any time.

Eric White