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Community News

Sep 27, 2017

Architects keep an open door

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Header image: Canstruction 2012, Build Out. Credit: Damianos Photography.

Whenever I’m in the Seaport District, I am reminded of the dedication, expertise, and creativity of the Boston Society of Architects. In the mid-1990s, as the planning process was getting under way for the Fort Point Channel and South Boston Waterfront, the BSA formed a focus team that came up with key principles for the waterfront. The BSA committee, headed by Todd Lee FAIA at one point, pushed for well-designed buildings, a mix of uses and generous open spaces, as well as an extension of the HarborWalk public-access system. The Boston Harbor Association had been promoting similar principles for years, but the respect that public officials had for the design community gave greater credence to what we and groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation had been advocating.

I remember when Tom Keane Hon. BSA—my former city councilor and the BSA executive director following long-serving executive director Richard Fitzgerald Hon. BSA—pushed for the BSA to move from its long-established offices on Broad Street. At the time, Boston Properties had just acquired Russia Wharf, and because of stringent Chapter 91 facilities of public-accommodation requirements for the building, the new owners were challenged to meet both the spirit and the letter of the state tidelands requirements. Russia Wharf, home to several architectural firms, was a complicated complex of three buildings, and its historic designation required the preservation of its facades.

Mike Cantalupa, Bryan Koop, and Brian Swett Hon. BSA of Boston Properties were each involved in various aspects of the permitting and lease negotiations for the ground and second floors of Russia Wharf. I remember the team coming back energized by a visit to New York City, saying that what they experienced in New York made them believe that the BSA/AIA would be the best partner to help program and activate the required public spaces of the newly dubbed Atlantic Wharf.

In hindsight, what a smart move by all parties! Early on, a Boston Globe article stated, “At BSA Space, architects keep an open door,” and marveled at the green staircase by the young team of Höweler + Yoon. That firm would go on to do many more innovative installations, including the much-heralded Swing Timeglowing oval swings at Lawn on D in the Seaport, and the staircase in the new BSA Space was a brilliant way to introduce the general public to the BSA and to its younger members.

The relationship between Boston Properties (which has always been committed to fulfilling its Chapter 91 requirements) and the BSA has been much more than that of a traditional landlord-tenant. As part of giving back to the community since Atlantic Wharf’s 2012 opening, the BSA and Boston Properties have been presenting sponsors and venue hosts of the annual Canstruction Boston event, where architectural, design, and construction teams create canned-goods sculptures, with the canned foods donated afterward to a local food bank. To foster public appreciation of local architecture and encourage water-dependent use, Boston Properties provided free docking space to the BSA when it first experimented with architectural cruises from Atlantic Wharf. And the public has enjoyed from the start a series of unique exhibitions exploring ideas about design.

Perhaps most significant has been Boston Properties’ and the BSA’s leadership, together with the City of Boston and organizations such as The Boston Harbor Association, in creating greater public awareness of the effects of climate change. Atlantic Wharf has hosted numerous public forums on climate preparedness and climate adaptation, including the Boston Living With Water Competition, which sought design solutions for a “beautiful, vibrant, and resilient Boston that is prepared for end-of-the-century climate conditions and rising sea levels.”

I had the privilege of serving on the BSA Foundation board as it began to think more broadly about how to engage with the community. Following a strategic-planning process, the Foundation recommitted its efforts to supporting projects and programs to increase the public’s awareness of the importance of good design, and to funding BSA programs and exhibits at Atlantic Wharf. The first year that the Foundation held a fundraiser to support public programs about the built environment, we on the board were very nervous about the turnout. True to form, the design, engineering, and construction communities came out in force, generously supporting the Foundation and its work, and continuing to do so ever since.

One of the most active periods was when the BSA played host for the first time in 16 years to the AIA National Convention and Design Exposition in 2008. For more than a year, small groups met to plan tours of the Seaport District, boat tours of Boston Harbor and the Charles River, and scores of other key sites for the more than 25,000 convention-goers.

Having had a chance to meet the many talented AIA members from all over the world at the convention, I was very honored when former BSA president and AIA vice president Peter Kuttner FAIA and the BSA staff and board supported my election as a public director to AIA’s National Board. To be able to contribute on a national level with talented and dedicated design professionals is one of the highlights of my professional life.

When I went to work for Riverlife in Pittsburgh in October 2015, I was surprised by the reaction to the arrival of ArchitectureBoston. The staff was in awe of the quality of the publication under the leadership of Elizabeth Padjen FAIA and then Renée Loth Hon. BSA (turns out that most AIA chapters don’t produce a magazine), and even more surprised that nonarchitects, including me, were invited to serve on its editorial board. I shared my contribution about Shanghai’s Bund in the “Places in Time” article, but truth be told, Riverlife staff were much more impressed that it was published right next to a piece by Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame) about Bedford Street in Greenwich Village.

As the Boston Society of Architects celebrates its 150th anniversary, there is much to be proud of, including the BSA’s many contributions as a result of its civic agenda as well as the numerous creative design solutions coming from BSA members. The chapter is strong, with younger members being mentored and groomed by more experienced members. BSA staff, under the able and much-respected leadership of Eric White, is among the best of nonprofit organizations. Building on that rich legacy, I believe that the best is still to come.

Vivien Li Hon. BSA, former president, The Boston Harbor Association

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