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Urban Fabric: What happens when you let innovation lead

For many of us, graduating can often appear to be the end of romanticism and the beginning of practicality. After experiencing a period of enlightenment and conceptual thinking in school, we hang up our proverbial thinking caps and enter the working world, which seems, for the most part, cloaked in banal monotony. As we take our first steps toward professional practice, we sometimes leave our intellectual half unfulfilled and neglected, and often yearn for richer, more provocative experiences. Upon graduating from Harvard’s GSD and beginning work at Sasaki Associates in the summer of 2010, Alexis Canter and Eamonn Hutton took a conscious step to integrate these two seemingly distant worlds.

In October, after working full time for a few months, Canter and Hutton approached Gina Ford, a landscape principal at Sasaki, with the idea to conduct a research project that would investigate the declining quality of life in the American industrial city. Ford was highly receptive to their exploration and proposed that the firm play a strong supportive role in their research development and execution. In addition to their regularly scheduled workweek, Canter and Hutton spent countless hours conducting research, collecting data, meeting city officials and rigorously compiling information. They met monthly with principals and associates, all of whom contributed to the project’s ideas and research methods. Sasaki’s encouragement was not only crucial in the development of Canter and Hutton’s research but also critical in funding site visits, providing office resources and marketing the project. This collaborative effort and supportive environment created the opportunity for their research to evolve into what it has become to date—an exhibition and lecture series titled Urban Fabric: Strategies for American Cities.

Urban Fabric culminated into an investigative-research effort that closely examines three carefully chosen American industrial cities: Fall River, Massachusetts; Mobile, Alabama; and Newark, New Jersey. Each largely relied on one industry, textiles, to function. The initial investigation began as a means to discover the reason these once-thriving cities have become degraded and neglected. The exhibition profiles in great detail the political, social, cultural and economic characteristics of each city, presented in beautiful graphics and eloquent text.

During their travels, Canter and Hutton collected street interviews from the locals, providing emotional viewpoints to supplement the quantitative research. Listening to the personal accounts of life in American industrial “middle-cities” created a true understanding of the suppression the citizens living there felt.

After one of the Urban Fabric presentations, Ford explained the misconception that many people share, which is that the city is a self-healing entity and that, over time, things will recover. This simply is not true and has been proven through Canter and Hutton’s findings. They examined a large number of urban precedents, including the Five Borough Farm in Brooklyn, New York, by the Design Trust for Public Space, which begins to inform the elements of successful urbanism through inclusion and activation in once-stressed environments. Projects such as these offer insight into the possible design strategies that can be explored in the future. In their study of Fall River, for example, Canter and Hutton examined the effects on the city after local production had left and many of the residents and workers remained, regardless of the lack of work and uncertain economic growth. They began to question how the absence of industry continued to shape the city and contribute to its economics, politics and culture, and then how intervention could revitalize the afflicted area. They found that as a result of a rise in overseas production, many of Fall River’s mills became abandoned, leaving more than 10 million gross square feet of residual mill space within the city. They composed studies of realized mill renovation strategies that have contributed to the revitalization of inactivated sites around the country to begin discussion of how to move forward in these conflicted areas. Over the next several months, Canter, Hutton and the rest of Sasaki will continue to study and explore possibilities within these middle cities, most of which have lost their identities.

In addition to the exhibit, Sasaki has invited several landscape architects, research professionals and urbanists to give lectures and lead discussions every Wednesday and Friday, now until the beginning of May 2011. These lectures, coupled with Canter and Hunter’s research, have created a massive think-tank environment at Sasaki that has opened up discussion of how to cure these midtier cities from their economic demise.

With Canter and Hunter’s efforts and Sasaki’s support, provocative thought and practicality are harmonious, and academia has been successfully stitched with professionalism to create a brilliant thought-stimulating environment that nurtures progression.

Read more on “gateway cities” in ArchitectureBoston magazine.

Michael Paganetti received his MArch from Wentworth Institute of Technology in May 2010. He is currently working at DiMella Shaffer as an architectural intern and is aspiring to become licensed through the firm’s Intern Development Program. In addition to working, Paganetti enjoys traveling and visiting historic urban spaces and structures around the world.

Photo credit for exhibition triptych: Mary Lewey, Sasaki Associates.

Five questions for David Lee FAIA

On October 7, at its national conference in Boston, the National Organization of Minority Architects honors Stull and Lee with a lifetime achievement for the firm’s work in architecture and advocacy.

The BSA recently spoke to David Lee FAIA—a partner of Stull and Lee, a past BSA president and its 2000 Award of Honor recipient—about his favorite and current projects, the economy and his love of music.

Which of your projects are you the most proud of?

Ever the optimist, whenever I’m asked that question, I want to say, “My next one.” When piano player Keith Jarrett one night asked Miles Davis why he didn’t perform his familiar ballads more often, Miles famously replied, in his raspy voice, “Because I love them too much.” Miles was always exploring and challenging himself to do something else. I’d like to think I have that gene—that I could always do something better. But in terms of what’s done, there are two projects.

On the urban-design scale, there’s the Southwest Corridor transit project. As coordinating architects and urban designers, we conceived the notion of creating a linear park that would link important sites along the way and evolve over time. It’s a real jewel, and I’m proud of what it has done to stimulate development and revive several neighborhoods that had gone into decline because of the uncertainty around the originally proposed highway project.

I’m also proud of our collaboration with William Rawn Associates on a mixed-use building at Northeastern [University] called Building F. We were responsible for the design of the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute, which, for many years, had been a major gathering place for Northeastern students of color. We created a visually distinct identity with some very iconic features for the institute, while working with Bill to make sure it all worked together as a total composition. The university uses many of those facilities for general classrooms, so now African-American and other students of other ethnic descents used to being in classrooms dominated by Western-civilization imagery get to spend time in meeting rooms and computer rooms that are visually related to Cape Verdean, African and African-American themes as well.

What are you working on right now?

Locally, we have teamed up with GUND Partnership to work with principal developers Elma Lewis Partners on a site near Ruggles Station. Elma Lewis was an important African-American cultural figure in Boston, and we’ll be working on a mixed-use development that includes retail and office space, as well as a museum and cultural center that is a continuation of her work.

Nationally, we are co-leading a project with Sasaki Associates in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which is a historically significant African-American community. The neighborhood was home to many important musicians—Billy Eckstine, Ahmad Jamal, George Benson—as well as many Negro Baseball League teams, most notably the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

It’s been such a difficult last few years for architects at all stages of their careers. Have you ever thought about leaving the profession?

When I first got to college and discovered advertising design and industrial design, I thought, That’s pretty cool. And Mad Men has only reinforced the appeal of the creative side of advertising.

Another time that comes to mind is one day much later in my career. I was now a firm principal in Boston, and it was raining and miserable outside. I had been asked to consider applying for the deanship of the University of Southern California, and I remember looking out the window and thinking, If I could quit this job, I would. But as the boss, that’s hard to do.

On a more serious note, I will say that I never expected at this point of my career to be challenged in the ways that we are. The competition is fierce. People are slashing fees and providing free services. Big firms are going after jobs they never would have chased in the past. It’s ugly.

Having taught at the Harvard GSD, MIT and RISD, I know how hard architecture students work and how much it costs them to get through school. So to see them graduate and not be able to find a job is so painful. And it’s just as painful to see talented professionals with lots of energy and experience—never mind families to support—also struggling.

I have to admit I am frustrated with the Obama administration, as much as I support him and what he said he was going to do. The fact that they have not stood their ground on using the infrastructure spending to help the country as a whole is really disappointing. I don’t think we are going to look back 30 years from now and see anything that compares to national achievements like the Hoover Dam, the Merritt Parkway or some of the other wonderful WPA-era buildings.

What should the BSA be using ArchitectureBoston to talk about right now?

Job creation.

One of my colleagues while I was teaching at the GSD was Margaret Crawford, who did a studio once where she challenged the students and the City of Cambridge to come up with 100 good ideas around urban-design issues.

Given that the BSA is 143 years old, let’s ask for 143 creative ideas to get architects back to work. The ideas should be double-bottom-line approaches, so there are social and economic benefits as well as design benefits. Who wouldn’t be compelled to submit something worthy of making that list of wonderful projects that would get people working and celebrate what we are capable of achieving?

We know you love music. What are you listening to on your iPod these days?

I heard Allen Toussaint interviewed on NPR and downloaded his stuff right away. I’m about to meet up with some high school buddies to descend on New York City. As we were emailing back and forth, I was listening to “Jelly, Jelly” by Billy Eckstine and the Count Basie Orchestra, and its big-band thing sounded so good to me, I told them that’s my pick hit for the day. My favorite recent album, which is just a great grown-up album, is by Joe Sample and Randy Crawford. It’s called Feeling Good, and it’s just a most amazing and beautiful album.

Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, and The Boston Globe. Her website is

For more on Lee, read the recent Boston Globe profile on Stull and Lee and a piece written by Lee for Progressive Architecture during the last recession.


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