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A new cycle of street life in Boston

Shauna Gillies-Smith ASLA, LEED AP, principal of Ground Inc., and Mark Pasnik RA, LEED AP, principal of over,under, gave a recent talk co-hosted by the BSA and LivableStreets Alliance. We caught up with them afterwards.

What role should design play in creating livable streets and communities?

Shauna: A major premise of our talk was that design matters. We fundamentally believe that every part of our experience is affected by design decisions, and some of them are strong, conscious design decisions and some are weak, de facto, that’s-the-way-it-has-to-be kind of design decisions. Our roads, sidewalks: they are all designed by design professionals. Bringing the pleasure of design to the table is fundamental and can really enhance the quality of life in our cities. We tend to think of nice cities as being old, historic cities that were designed on a different scale for a different set of constraints. In a contemporary city, we can still be designing that level of visual experience and pleasure in, but we have to do it with a different set of parameters and goals.

Mark: The idea of design is to make smart decisions about a place and the qualities of a place. Design is not just window-dressing, but it involves addressing issues as they relate to transportation, community building, public space—all which are crucial to the success of a street. Design thinking is an essential component of making good streets and good places. To follow up on Shauna’s point, contemporary society has an entirely different set of issues than the 19th century did—in terms of everything from transit to ways of thinking—so the image of the city should evolve with those changing parameters.

Shauna: During the Build Boston panel on landscape urbanism, Tim Love AIA brought up the discussion between the ecological street and the urban street. When you add on the concept of a livable street, it becomes an exciting possibility where the street can be designed for use by a full range of transportation modes and be designed for enjoyable experience while working in an ecological way, like treating the stormwater and looking at shade issues. The discussion made me interested in finding a prototypical street to work on, combining all these ideas.

What can designers do to carry forward the momentum from Boston’s anticipated bike-share program?

Mark: During the second half of our BSA/LivableStreets talk, I spoke about how designers and educators might advocate for the bike-share. At Wentworth Institute of Technology, my colleagues and I are getting our students involved by having them think about alternative transportation. We’re trying to prod our young designers to consider alternative transportation and livable streets as a part of their mindset. That’s a long-term investment, which may not pay off for some time with actual results. In the meantime, the students’ work could lead other people to think about transportation and how design can embrace and improve it.

Shauna: We were impressed by the crowd at the BSA/LivableStreets talk: it was a room full of people who weren’t designers but were extremely interested in design issues. It was exciting to find a group of young people interested and committed to changing the way we use the city and open to the way design can enhance that.

Mark: The crowd at the BSA/LivableStreets event showed remarkable enthusiasm and motivation. For me, it was great to discover an army of people who are interested in design and improving the city even though they are not designers themselves—actually, because they’re not designers. That’s an even better scenario: someone who is willing to engage in design and promote it, but isn’t necessarily a designer.

Shauna: To return back to the bike-share question: the logical place to start with design in the bike-share program is the design of the bike-share stations. Designing the entire street or bikeway is a much larger undertaking, but the stations’ design would be a great way to start. To design these bike stations with the same sort of interest and enthusiasm will catalyze even more energy about the program.

Mark: From what I understand, an approved vendor does most of the work—providing the bikes and the setting, so I hope the city might increase enthusiasm for the bike-share by running a design competition for the stations, the signage or other component of the program’s implementation. The design community could be involved in thinking about fresh ways to initiate a bike-share program in Boston, rather than just rolling it out the way it was done in Paris or Barcelona. What would be a unique way to implement this program in Boston, a city that frankly doesn’t have the kind of infrastructure these others already had in place? Boston is starting to get there with new bike routes and signs, but we’ve still got a long way to go in making a bike-friendly city.

Shauna: Visibility and identity are important. It wouldn’t be a good idea to have a bunch of bike-sharing elements designed by different characters. Having some type of recognizable theme or identity would start to make people who weren’t cyclists more aware of the program and that it is a part of our everyday city. You wouldn’t have drivers leaning out their windows saying, “Get on the bike path!”

Mark: My partner and I went to Paris last year. The Velib bike-sharing system changed the way we saw moving through the city. You get your bike, you ride it, you leave it behind and then you walk somewhere else and get another bike. It changes the whole impression of how alternative transportation is used in the city. In Boston, we’re so used to locking up our bikes, being concerned about them and having to come back to the same place. Under the bike-share model, the experience is fluid between biking, walking and public transportation, all without ever having to return back to something you own.

Shauna: When my family and I went to Paris several years ago, it was a very nodal experience. We’d absorb the place we were in, then get on the subway and go underground to the next node. The Boston metropolitan area has similarly developed around its T stops. For me, it is exciting to have another means of shared transportation that is about a continual experience of the city.

How can architects and landscape architects work together better?

Mark: There’s a distance between architects and landscape architects that could be overcome in some cases, but I think most good architecture and landscape architecture practices set up a smart collaboration. They recognize landscape is a component of the total design of a place, not a separate package that gets farmed out to someone late in the process. A more integrated model is the ideal scenario.

Shauna: The most successful projects that I’ve worked on have been ones where the relationship between inside and outside space was developed together from the outset. Sometimes we’re brought on so late that it’s just us working around a project. Often the landscape architect is a sub-consultant to the architect, which has certain positive qualities. But often we’re put in a place where we have two clients: the architect client and the client client. The goals of the two clients aren’t always the same. It’s helpful when both designers are contracted to the end client and when landscape architects are brought in early on in the project. We want to clearly convey the goals and possibilities of the landscape and the architecture’s relationship to it early on.

Mark: The project needs to be understood from a complete design perspective. This is particularly important when designing public space.

Is there anything you would change about the design process?

Shauna: The answer is yes [laughs].

Mark: How many things can we list in this short article [laughs]? At over,under, we’re attempting to design at a variety of scales, from the scale of a book to the scale of a city. We’ve managed to work at this broad range of scales in various projects, but integrating those scales within a single project is something we’d love to be able to do more in the future. If we’re designing a component of the city, we’d also like to envision its marketing strategy, visualization and identity work. It doesn’t happen as much as we’d like it to. Clients still think specialization. It would be wonderful to holistically think about urban, architectural and identity issues in one project—they should be interrelated, after all.

Shauna: Most important for me with respect to the design process is design literacy and awareness. People need to understand the possibilities that design can hold. Things don’t have to look the way they always have been. You can combine function and interest together. As I mentioned during the BSA/LivableStreets talk, I designed a big rock as a traffic-calming measure. The opportunity to talk at the BSA/LivableStreets event allowed me to view my work through a transportation lens and a number of people who weren’t designers started to get excited about design. The more that can happen, the more chance we have to do interesting design in Boston. As Mark mentioned at our talk, it doesn’t cost that much more to make a wonderful design experience. You don’t have to go to the other side of the world to historic or contemporary European cities to have great architectural experiences. They can be built into our own cities as we’re going along. To do so, we must build awareness and excitement so we can all do great work.

Mark: When it comes to good design, Boston has been a sleepy place for some time. I think that’s starting to change, especially in the past decade. I hope the trend continues and the broader public maintains an interest in contemporary design—where they remain open to things that don’t have to look like they were built in the 19th century. Part of what makes cities great is that they continue to evolve. A good city shouldn’t shy away from representing the layers of different periods of time, including our own.

Shauna: To add to that, landscape doesn’t have to look like a naturalistic park or an Olmsted lawn and picturesque trees in order to be good. I think Boston has been working at developing its architectural openness a little faster than its landscape openness. A city like Toronto is becoming a landscape destination city. The waterfront district sponsored a number of competitions and high-profile projects and brought in a number of well-known contemporary landscape architects. This started to engender a citywide interest in good contemporary landscapes. …The actual waterfront was a part of the city of Toronto, but then the city started becoming more interested, sponsoring some competitions and developers became more interested. It’s like anything new: you have to taste it before you can know what it really is.

What is your favorite part of the design process?

Mark: My role in teaching and at over,under is often as a design critic. I especially enjoy working with my co-conspirators once a direction is set and questions need to be asked about how to refine it, edit it, work it through. I have extremely creative collaborators, so we always have interesting discussions surrounding the advancement of a project.

Shauna: I like a lot of the design process. People look at the same place from so many different directions and eyes and perspectives: the perspective of someone moving through it, the perspective of someone being static, how it might be appropriated in completely different ways, the detailing, all of the possibilities, the different ways it could be designed. Ground Inc. tends to overproduce options. We do a lot of different alternatives at the outset—we freely let the ideas out on paper or in models and then we step back and review them. For us, the generation and the editing are somewhat separate steps. We deliberately try to separate them so we’re not inhabiting the ideas as they’re coming out. I love coming up with different ideas on the way things could be and details, but I also appreciate when people have interesting ideas that have never crossed my mind. We don’t have just one person developing ideas for a project in our office.

Mark: The thing that attracts us to the design world is creativity. It’s part of every step of the process, whether it’s creating or editing or making something. All of these phases involve an enormous amount of imagination. Being surrounded by people with that kind of focus and passion makes it great to be part of the design profession.

You both teach. How has the evolving design profession affected the way you teach versus the way you were taught?

Mark: Something that has changed in the way I teach compared to when I studied is the idea of engagement. In my education, I might have engaged in research or real urban issues of a site, but never met a client or community group. At Wentworth, we make a point to do just that. For instance, my colleagues Lora Kim, Beth Gibb and I took students to New Orleans to design and construct a series of small projects for an environmental center. In my current third-year studio, our students met with specific clients and got to see where and how they work. My group visited the Seven Cycles factory and met with the company’s president, Rob Vandermark. Students then developed their proposals for a cycling center and presented the results back to the Rob. That kind of engagement with the non-architecture community didn’t exist in my education.

Shauna: You learn a lot from your students. They keep you on your toes. Students are current with contemporary thinking. They’re learning, but they’re also trying to push excellence at every step. Their datum is to try to do the best that they can, which isn’t always the same in the professional world, where a lot of the times it’s just doing the job you know how to do. I teach part-time and immersing myself in that world keeps me interested, engaged and exposed to good students that might want to work in the office. And it literally makes me keep up with my game.

Mark: Students are constantly giving me information that they’ve discovered. It’s very rewarding to watch students develop a design or discover something that I’ve never seen before. But beyond that, there’s the simple inspiration of watching these young people figure something out and acquire a passion. Suddenly they discover architecture and it’s the thing that lights them up. One of the joys of teaching undergraduates is that architecture is such a different knowledge set from high school English or history or science. Some students excel beyond what they ever expected they could do.

Shauna: Mark mentioned earlier that critiquing is a creative job—helping to develop design minds is also a challenging and creative job. Trying to figure out the best way to raise a problem and develop somebody’s project and their interest is fulfilling.

What are you currently working on?

Shauna: The most interesting project that Ground Inc. is working on is the landscape for a new residence hall for Mass College of Art in association with ADD Inc. There isn’t yet a major topographical space associated with the college. Our space will come onto Huntington Avenue, so we’re providing more of an identity and an outdoor living room for the students. Also, because it’s an art school and a particular type of art school, the students really want the building and public space to speak of their identity. They’re a great client—when we go to our client meetings, Kay Sloan, the university president is there, as well as many other high-level executives within the institution, and then there are typically four students there. And the students are generally the ones who spend most of the time critiquing the design—with the full support of the administration and the faculty! For the most part, their comments have been bang-on. It’s an interesting change in the way one thinks of a hierarchal committee. The students are given a major voice at the table. It’s fun.

Mark: Right now over,under is working with the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum to rebrand the institution and doing design work for an urban district in a Middle Eastern city. The exciting thing about our practice is that we’re set up to do such broad-reaching types of design with vastly different scales, design focuses, and localities—from a 20-minute drive away to a 14-hour plane trip. One’s rural, one’s urban. One is for an art institution, the other a developer. We love those kinds of contrasts.

If you could redesign a public space in Boston for fun, what space would you choose?

Shauna: Well, I want to avoid the obvious one [laughter].

Mark: One of my favorite contemporary spaces in the world is the Christian Science Center. I would love to be involved in a public space like that. Not that it needs much. It’s already a fascinating, great space.

Why is it a great space?

Mark: It is one of the most successful modern spaces I know. It has an incredible scale. The plaza both connects well to the life of the city and has a real sense of repose. It is well used—not in an intense sense, but in a calm and grand way. It feels like a special place in the city. Kids run through the fountain, people stroll to the symphony. It handles these disparate activities deftly.

Shauna: There are two spaces I’d be especially interested in. One is actually sparked by the BSA/LivableStreets talk and also by the Build Boston panel on landscape urbanism: I’d love to work on a multi-disciplinary project for a prototypical complete street where, in an experimental, conscious and progressive way, we combine stormwater management, attitudes toward urbanism and different modes of transportation like cycling and walking. That’s my biggest interest at the moment. The other, much bigger project that I’d be interested in is the waterfront. Boston still has a pretty uninteresting, periodic relationship to its waterfront. I went to architecture school in Vancouver, and there the waterfront is part of your everyday experience of the city. In Boston, there are still very few places that you can go to understand that we actually are on the water.

Mark: Thinking back on the show we did at pinkcomma on “heroic” modernism, I thought of another urban space that I would love to work on: the back face of Paul Rudolph’s Health and Human Services building. There is a remarkable stair that slips through the building and down to meet Merrimac Street. The stair is one of the most beautiful constructs in the city of Boston, but it lands in what is now a parking lot with an ambulance drop-off surrounded by chain-link fencing. This space could be a wonderful public environment: it is located in a district that’s evolving and on the border of a number of neighborhoods. Donlyn Lyndon has a great quote about that stair, saying it is suited to a Fred Astaire extravaganza. Descending the stair, he says, you can’t help but think of dancing: “you’ll almost certainly swing out at the bottom in a gliding step with your fingers snapping.” The stair is just so dramatic, almost baroque. But like many of the buildings and environments of its era, this space is in desperate need of attention. I think it would be fascinating to rethink it, while respecting its modern nature, which adds an important layer to our city’s history.

Top image: a design for a LEED facility for bicycle storage, changing rooms and showers by Wentworth student James Jarzyniecki.