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Common Boston: Peeling back the layers of urban life

We each build our own little city to live in out of the bricks and mortar of our daily routines. They tend to reduce the infinite possibilities of urban life to a familiar circle of people and places. Common Boston was invented to push back on this inclination—by reminding us of the opportunities awaiting at every doorway, street corner and neighborhood.

Piles of books discarded by libraries form a landscape for dancers and partygoers within an artwork-lined hall at Mass College of Art.

Click image above to view slideshow.

This 10-day mash-up of tours, talks, parties and competitive construction projects explores not only the city’s physical infrastructure but also the people and institutions that inhabit it. Now in its fifth year and supported by the Boston Society of Architects, Common Boston was built from the ground up by a small group of design professionals to bridge the dividing lines of race, class, age and education. Teams of volunteers reach into city neighborhoods to discover the environments and organizations at the core of community life—and reach out to engage the big ideas that define shared aspirations.

The biggest of these ideas was articulated at the kickoff presentation by Harvard economics professor, author and ubiquitous intellectual Edward Glaeser: that city dwellers trade space for knowledge and the opportunities it offers to transform their lives. When people, places and ideas are compacted under pressure, he says, they can produce wealth that is made manifest in innumerable forms. As both confirmation and counterpoint the following night, revelers packed into the dParty at MassArt; they danced their way through serpentine bookscapes made up of piles of discarded academic volumes.

Two weekends of tours opened doors into secret lives, hidden histories and the evolving ecology of the area. A visit to Fenway Studios’ century-old artists’ apartments was typical. Each of the 46 double-height lofts has a story to tell, and a devoted denizen there to tell it. David Lowrey described how his space’s angling shafts of light replicate the conditions of Vermeer’s studio; descending his stairs is like walking into a painting and back to the 17th century.

A Mission Hill hike explored the transformations of an urban neighborhood, recorded in its buildings’ facades and residents’ faces. And a walk through the Back Bay Fens wetlands revealed traces of the dynamic pas de deux between nature and engineering. As an urban explorer who is always reluctant to follow someone else’s storyline, I was delighted with these guides’ knowledge and insights.

A hilltop park offered the opportunity to create new narratives, as six teams of designers used scavenged materials to build temporary installations in the landscape. Armed with rolls of yellow mesh, a $200 budget and instructions to weave urban and natural spaces together, they produced a range of thoughtful interventions. Their inventive benches, modular gardens and intimate spaces were the kind of bottom-up “squatter architecture” that returns public spaces back to the public.

But Common Boston’screative collection of events offers more than just a yearly opportunity to “engage with new places and to interact with people who shape the city” as its printed and online guidebook advertises. After all, every day every city offers a calendar continually filled with fascinating open houses and celebrations. What defines Common Boston is that it ties these opportunities to a broader philosophical argument—that the more we know about diverse points of view, the more we can make positive changes. Urban life inevitably involves navigating between conflicting goals and aspirations; every walk through an expanding institution and the neighborhood it impacts brings a common ground closer to realization.

Common Boston’s evolution from a benevolent insurgency to an established institution with professional affiliations suggests that strategic partnerships can help a grassroots organization fulfill this kind of mission. But cofounder Justin Crane offers a note of caution. “Open House London is sponsored by governmental agencies and has an underlying political agenda. San Francisco’s Architecture and the City festival has a full-time staff and ends up charging $50 or more an event. We’re staffed by volunteers who have a high level of energy so we can keep everything free. And because we’re around only two weeks a year, we avoid the turf battles and political intrigue that too many organizations have to work around.” Small organizations can get bogged down when their ambitions require them to build a bureaucracy, but really smart groups need a way to make their presence felt beyond a limited circle of aficionados.

The online landscape that parallels the city as we know it may offer a way to steer around the gridlock. Digital devices may not be a substitute for the real experience of a city, but they can offer access to the information and insights that Common Boston has worked hard to uncover. Demographic data can be charted, historic landscapes can be traced and the significance of modern masterpieces can be clarified as layers on phone-app maps. Interior environments can be opened up to view through Google Earth links, and YouTube videos let inhabitants tell their story. And Common Boston’s parties, tours and temporary installations can endure as revelations of what cities have to offer.

David Eisen AIA is a principal at Abacus Architects + Planners in Boston. He is the author of Boston Modern: The Spirit of Reinvention and writes frequently on design issues for a variety of publications. He received his architecture degree at Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Common Boston forum on Boston's Innovation District

Co-sponsored by Common Boston in partnership with the Urban Neighborhood Design Alliance, this panel discussion explores opportunities for growth, creativity and work within the Innovation District on South Boston waterfront.

See our full schedule of upcoming Lecture Series events.

Blowing up Common Boston

Kick off Common Boston, a 10-day citywide festival of architecture, design and neighborhoods, on June 17, 2010 with monochrome outfits, Sam Adams, DJed tunes and inflatable architecture at dParty.

At this year’s cocktail party connecting designers and design aficionados, partygoers are required to dress in head-to-toe monochrome outfits. Those who do not come dressed to suit the theme may rent a monochrome outfit in exchange for $10 or for a donation of 5 pounds of clothing—and change in an inflatable dressing room. The money and the clothing will benefit Boomerangs, which is providing the rental outfits.

The BSA recently caught up with dParty co-organizer Mary Hale to get the scoop on the ins and outs of constructing inflatable architecture and whether all-black counts as monochrome.

We're super-intrigued by your inflatable dressing-room idea. Is that really happening?

Yes, definitely. Katie Flynn, my dParty co-organizer, and I are going to conduct a mini design charrette with Brandon Roy, a friend and collaborator from the MIT Media Lab, and then we're just going to get a bunch of volunteers together this weekend and build them. Inflatables are actually very easy to build. Brandon and I co-taught a workshop on inflatable-making at MIT during the winter session last year. In the first week, we covered their history, as well as techniques and structure. In the second week, the students in the class actually built their own inflatables to display in a public exhibition.

How do you make an inflatable?

I have a blog about an installation I did in New Orleans. It has a resources section that details all the different materials you can use.

The cheapest and easiest way to make an inflatable is out of drop-cloth plastic: polyethylene. Many of the inflatables that people were making in the ’60s—such as the giant architectural-scale inflatables by groups like Ant Farm and Utopie in France—were made out of polyethylene. There's a history of those. You don't have to buy polyethylene. You can find it used, particularly at mattress stores, as mattresses come in giant polyethylene bags. They're huge. You can just trim the side and unfold it. Then you have a giant sheet.

So you start with that, and you can either tape the sheets of polyethylene together until you have something sealed that will hold air. Or you can iron them together with a normal household iron and either aluminum foil or Teflon. Joanne Fabrics carries Teflon pressing sheets.

But there are all kinds of fabrics you can use that are not polyethylene. I did an installation this past winter using breathable rip-stop nylon, which is like parachute material. The installation was a wearable, inflatable house, and I'd wanted, while people were wearing it around, for it to kind of deform and change shape. It was important to me that it not get too full and turgid. The breathable ripstop allowed air to slowly escape through the walls, so although that fabric was inflated all the way, it never got too full.

How on earth did you get involved with making inflatables?

I received my masters of architecture at MIT, where we were required to take a visual arts class. I took an elective called "Give Me Shelter Bodywear," which was taught by a visiting professor, Regina Muller. She thinks about bodywear as a wearable tool—for example, scuba gear and spacesuits are both bodywear that allow humans to exist in uninhabitable environments.

Rather than coming up with an engineering invention, I was interested in coming up with bodywear as escape. Inflatables seemed the perfect metaphor for what I was trying to achieve: something that goes from two dimensions to three dimensions very quickly. My project was called The Monumental Helium Inflatable Wearable Floating Body Mass, and it was a helium inflatable with a 13-foot diameter. It's supposed to make you 10 percent your normal weight, so as this thing is expanding in volume, you're also decreasing your weight. Once it's completely full, you can jump in the air and it should sustain you for a little longer than normal. But it doesn't make you fly away.

That was the first inflatable project I'd ever done, and I really had no idea what I was doing. But it worked out: a testament to how easy it is to make an inflatable. For that one I used drop-cloth plastic, and I taped rather than heat-sealing it. The only tape I've been able to find that is strong enough and doesn't peel off is Gorilla Tape. It makes for black seams, so I had to come up with a design that made those look intentional.

Once you make an inflatable—and I've seen this happen to other people, too, now that I've taught a class—you really kind of catch the bug. I mean, it's really thrilling to see something that you worked hard on—that you have no idea whether or not it's going to work—go from two to three dimensions.

At the dParty, will you inflate the dressing rooms as people are arriving or before they get there?

I think we'll blow them up before people arrive, as it only takes about two minutes for them to inflate fully.

Who knew there was a whole history of inflatables? Can you give us the super-abridged version?

In popular culture, inflatables seem to come back into the picture on a 90-year cycle. I think this begins with the first hot-air balloons in the 18th-century France, which really captured the imagination of the general public. Images of inflatables were popping up all over the place in housewares and la mode a la balon came into style, with women wearing dresses with puffed sleeves and puffy hairdos.

And then inflatables fall out of popular interest until the 1870s, and then again in the 1960s, which is probably the part of their history that's most interesting to an architecture audience. A number of architects were working with inflatables as a reaction to modern architecture—trying to break out of this world of orthogonal forms and the heaviness and weight of modern architecture by working with something that's light and able to take on all of these different curves and shapes. There's a book called The Inflatable Moment—about Utopie, a group of Parisian students in 1968 who worked with inflatables—that compares inflatables to protest.

In addition to all this, there's an engineering history. Since the 18th century, engineers have been working with inflatables and developing them for practical purposes. For a long time, the military developed dirigibles to navigate to different places. But inflatables fell out of favor with the rise of airplanes because planes are significantly more agile and a lot less obvious. However, inflatables are still used as military decoys. You should Google that. It's pretty amazing: There are very realistic-looking inflatable cars sent out in the field to act as decoys to the enemy.

Today, we’re seeing inflatables for use in disaster relief. There's a hospital in Haiti produced by Medecin Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) that has a structure of inflatable ribs with a tarp on top of them.

How did you come up with the idea that dParty attendees must wear monochrome outfits?

Katie and I began thinking about the theme for the party right after last year’s Common Boston festival. We spent a weekend brainstorming all these ideas for what Common Boston Week could be. It was fun: We had this really, really long list.

One theme we'd come up was "Transience and Transcendence," which would the highlight Boston's history as a city of transients, but also how that could be transcended: for example, how, as a student city, the institutions that give Boston a sense of permanence also ensure a shifting population.

And so, we started thinking about an event where people would come dressed in a solid color and how possibly those colors might tie to the subway line that the wearers live on—and what it would look like to see groups of people walking around the city in a solid color, making traces after the event.

It’s sort of esoteric, I guess, but that was the beginning of the idea for the party. And then that evolved into the idea for the dParty, which we wanted to make a benefit while being really fun and artistic, since it's supposed to be a networking event for designers and lovers of design.

Aren’t you a bit worried that all the architects will come dressed in black?

We wondered if we should outlaw black and thought no, actually, that would be pretty cool to have people in all black.

So when you are not volunteering with Common Boston in your free time, what do you do at your day job?

I work at Enterprise Community Partners, which is a national community-development intermediary with a number of programs that are meant to improve the quality of affordable housing, as well as to finance it and make it happen.

I work specifically in their Design Initiatives Department. We're a small department, but our role is really to advocate for high-quality design in affordable housing. We have two major initiatives.

The first one is the Rose Architectural Fellowship, a program that brings together nonprofit developers and young architects who are interested in learning about affordable-housing design and development. Enterprise selects host organizations: nonprofit community-based developers from around the country that have a strong project pipeline but are also the right size to bring a person in where they can really make an impact.

Once those organizations have been selected, Katie Swenson (my boss) works with them to develop a work plan for the three-year fellowship. We then put out a call for applications: really, a job opportunity where the applicants can look at a work plan and they see what they'll be doing for three years. The fellows are all architects--usually people who have demonstrated a commitment to communities in the past, whether it's through community-based design practice or even having worked with developers. Once selected, architect fellows work at the organizations for a period of three years, and the fellowship pays their stipend.

The other initiative I've been working on is the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute, which is taking place for the first time this July in Minneapolis. Basically, we’re gathering all the people you need at the table in order to talk about affordable housing design for a two-and-a-half-day event to unpack all the design, policy, regulatory and financial issues in affordable housing with the goal of better understanding how to achieve design excellence.

The idea is based on the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, where eight mayors are invited to attend and a design resource team made up of architects and landscape architects help educate the mayors about the role the design plays in their cities.

Our event is bringing together eight affordable-housing developers, both for profit and nonprofit, with a project in the schematic design phase to the institute; eight “design research team members,” (top-notch architects who have a history of really excellent design for affordable housing), finance people, urban planners and policy people. The first half-day features a keynote address and a public reception, and then there will be two days of closed-door charettes.

Top photo: Mary Hale.

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