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Theories of evolution

An interview with David Carlson

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Mikael Sandblom

David Carlson, deputy director of urban design at the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA), will retire in June after 35 years of involvement in shaping the city’s skyline. In May, he sat down for a conversation with Kishore Varanasi, director of urban design and a principal at CBT Architects.


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The definition of design has changed drastically, with a lot of issues affecting our society—climate change, mobility, social equity. Can you think of projects in Boston that have created new models to meet these challenges?

One example is the Spaulding [Rehabilitation] Hospital in Charlestown Navy Yard, which has been in the forefront of climate change. Like many coastal areas, Boston is a city whose history has been about reinventing the shoreline. One of the things we did not do is spend money to do any forward-thinking about that—but Spaulding did. It elevated the land, built in buffers, and integrated that thinking into the building itself by elevating utilities and having a protected but sacrificial parking garage below. That’s one project example of embedding a broader policy.

In the Seaport, developers in aggregate control a fair amount of land, and initial approvals for many of the projects were done before sea-level rise was acknowledged and targets were set. Now the owners are engaging in different ways of thinking about their responsibilities. It’s not just the city but property owners, consultants, and architects who are responsible for paying attention to things that need to be embedded in the design. That kind of holistic thinking is the best way to approach areas of robust growth, to last beyond whatever target we set for sea-level rise from the information we know currently.

The investment horizons of private development are different from some of these longer-term challenges; how do we address this?

If you look at the history of Boston, you have buildings that are still being preserved but also rehabbed, buildings that tech companies love, that have character. That is now beginning to resurrect itself in the heavy-timber, cross-laminated timber, mass-timber types of approaches—buildings using older technology but that are robustly built, using materials that inherently last if they are taken care of.

Is there such a thing as a Boston building, then?

I don’t know that a Boston brand is particularly definable. There is something interesting to observe when cities built themselves up using local materials first. The brick that forms a basis of Savannah, for example, is a different color than the older bricks that are mostly reddish around Boston. Red brick, the image of Beacon Hill—that is a Boston brand. But Boston is also a city of grids and nongrids, just like parts of Manhattan. Boston is more compact, so there is a distinction between areas like the grid of the Back Bay and the nongrid of downtown. How a building reacts to its site and the shape of its site is an interesting aspect of cities in general but of Boston in particular. A Boston building, if one wanted to characterize that, is one that shapes itself to its site. It’s difficult to tell people, ”You need to do angles,” because when you have a developer-based market, everyone is going to try to control costs, and right angles are easy to plan out.

A building or an architect or a developer can create a space, but the success of that space depends on its programming and its acuity and whether or not it has enough to feed into its use to make it a success.

David Carlson

A Boston designer is not simply trying to shoehorn something onto a site but thinking about larger issues. We are not given tabula rasa, ever, in Boston. Do you think that’s what makes it distinct for Boston, as opposed to postgrid cities such as Chicago or Manhattan?

Every site in Boston is a little bit different. That’s an interesting aspect about Boston, and I characterize that by making a point of buildings shaping themselves to the grid—which is not a grid. But there are also particularities about a site that are often . . . invisible that architects and engineers have to deal with—how a building stands up, what it needs to do, the infrastructure it might need to avoid. Since Boston was built out and its shoreline repeatedly reinvented, there were relatively cheap sources of granite. So there are seawalls all over the place, and they become an interesting reference to old things.

Boston is a fascinating city to walk around, as you can literally walk, in two minutes, to a different world, but you’ve only gone a block or two.

You’re saying there is even more grain than just the neighborhood grain? We always know Boston as a city of neighborhoods and character—Beacon Hill, Back Bay, the North End, etc. It isn’t a singular broad-brush idea that makes Boston, right?

Take a look at Manhattan. You go to Washington Heights, and that’s very different than Wall Street, where there’s no grid, which is part of its aggressive charm. Boston has its own mythology in terms of the shaping of the city.

Boston grew by accretion, but every town had areas of industries, often at the edges of things because there was convenient transport: the harbor, the coast, or a river providing power for old mills and factory buildings. But what you have now are industrial areas where industries no longer exist. You don’t need water, streams, mills; everyone’s on the grid. You need access to transportation. People are moving in and discovering the interesting aspects of areas that are on the cusp of things, at the edges of residential districts but becoming residential because of the demand. You don’t want to lose capacity for new forms of industry.

On that note, coming back to the Seaport, do you find the narrative that you just explained? If you were to tell somebody 20 years from now, this where it started: the waterfront, South Boston, the Innovation District. Is that physically manifested?

That district was entirely industrial, purpose-built for a reason that had everything to do with what was envisioned at the time to be a booming rail-to-sea economy. Some aspects of that industrial character are gone; now you have a more anonymous version of things based on a grid. What provides a little bit of character are still the old industrial things: a few buildings out in Marine Park, the Fish Pier and the World Trade buildings, Commonwealth Pier. It’s not entirely gone, but I completely take your point.

The Seaport is being built over 10, 15 years. The Back Bay was built out over 40 years with competing architects, different owners, and a mix of properties and lot sizes. Seaport has much larger lot sizes, massive developers, and an entirely different situation. It’s set up to be what it is, the same way the Back Bay was set up to be what it is. Those 40 years in the Back Bay allowed for a variation in the architectural styles of the time. Right now there is more anonymity because everything is a contemporary approach to things. Between that and the scale, there’s not enough time to stand back and say “OK, I’m going to do this for this reason.”

That brings me to the other hat you wear as the [emeritus] executive director of the Boston Civic Design Commission. Boston is one of the few cities that has a design-review process. Can you give examples where you felt that this is the best process we have in influencing a particular set of buildings and how you ensure that the review process is balanced?

The Civic Design Commission started out not quite sure of its footing but took quite seriously as its mandate to essentially monitor the impact on the public realm, which is a deliberately loosely defined term of the City of Boston. Along the way it has helped shape some buildings. It pushed for something different at Waterside Place Phase II, based on the success of 121 Seaport’s elliptical design, and the result was something I think the architects and developer liked better.

The Boston commission is unique, and some other cities modeled their review process after it. We try to maintain a composition of commissioners that reflects the sort of changing aspect of practice in the city that is also balanced with reality and pragmatism. The commissioners understand the repercussions of their suggestions for projects.

Anything else I should have asked you about Boston?

It’s worth noting that every neighborhood in Boston has been looked at and planned, even if the plan was just a few public conversations about zoning over the last 35 years. That process started when I arrived at the agency, and it’s essentially cycled through almost every part of the city. We’re taking a look at the downtown and Financial District plan now, which escaped any replanning or rethinking, aside from an effort that was done around 2000, I’ll say, trying to push for residential uses.

Boston is a city of microplans. There was a 1965 plan, now there’s a 2030 version of a plan for the whole city, a loose, wide-open framework that gathers policies together. Then you have the neighborhood plans, some of which are active and current, and then you have the projects.

If you look at Boston, it’s not just a set of projects but a series, almost, a Russian nesting doll way of looking at the city, where there’s the big doll and all the other dolls within. Then there are layers and layers and layers of dolls. Finally, there’s the project, which is the smallest doll. But you can’t find the project without looking through other dolls.

We have a great tradition of public space making—the Common, the Emerald Necklace. But recently there’s been a focus on creating an extraordinary public realm that forms the armature, with buildings coming in secondary, as in New York or the Toronto waterfront, for example. Where does Boston fit into making public realm a priority?

What may be interesting is how properties anywhere near the waterfront approach the space to actually deal with water and sea-level rise. Therein lies an opportunity to craft the notion of public access along the waterfront into something that serves a dual purpose, both as remarkable open space and a way of serving as a foreground to the buildings behind it.

The Seaport is different in that the framework of the streets was somewhat set up by the Big Dig infrastructure, and so the bones of that already existed. It was planned with large open spaces as an integral part. Fan Pier has two large open spaces. Seaport Square has one large and one modified space that are a part of the project. The idea is to try and keep those open spaces there.

Where do you take your out-of-town visitors to show them Boston?

Positioning City Hall was a deliberate act in the 1960s. From there, you can walk into the thick of the Financial District and the Cultural District, Downtown Crossing, which is itself changing. It’s an older shopping district, which has seen its days of glory and is coming back. You can walk to the North End. You can walk to the Public Market. You can walk to the earlier evolving version of the Public Market—Faneuil Hall Marketplace—where you can look at the oldest historic buildings. This is all literally two minutes out of City Hall.

Visitors might want to walk the [Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy] Greenway to see what they’ve heard so much about: the Big Dig, the Innovation District. The development parcels along the Greenway have kind of fallen by the wayside for different reasons. So it’s a string of parks aside from the Bulfinch Triangle, with a small one left to do. Everyone says we need world-class parks. The thing is, perhaps more so than buildings, parks and how they are perceived change over time because of programming, because plantings mature. The Greenway has begun to have active programming, which animates and transforms it beyond the pure design of the park. The same is true for spaces. A building or an architect or a developer can create a space, but the success of that space depends on its programming and its acuity, and whether or not, in terms of what’s around it, it has enough to feed into its use to make it a success.

Any parting wisdom for the next generation at the BPDA: When we think about designing a building, a project, or a public space, where should we start?

The most important thing is to approach it with flexibility. Stretch your mind and your imagination. The same advice applies to developers. If you’re a consultant or an architect, try and stretch your client’s mind. If you are flexible in how you think, you never know when a good idea is going to come. Leave yourself open to something that is deserving of testing. People come to us with problems. We need to help them make their lives better, their buildings better, their projects better, their houses better, their city better.

I’ve noticed there is no David Carlson in the conversation. It’s about the project, the idea. You’re out of the equation.

I take that as a compliment. I don’t like to be in situations where I have to arrive at “do this” or “do that,” even though we are put in those situations every day. Be a good listener. Come up with something that solves a problem, or look at it another way. As soon as you turn over a problem, restate it, and turn it back over, you know most architects are going to think about that and mull it over. You might get something very similar back, but you also might get something different or at least better, which is ultimately the thing.

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