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.
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.