The city. The city is arguably the dominant subject of architectural discourse today. Its return came in topical waves over the last decade: landscape urbanism, infrastructural urbanism, networks, shrinking cities, and wholesale metropolises constructed in China and the Middle East. And the 2008 bust, with the almost overnight evaporation of building commissions, by default solidified the city as subject, as the singular project for investigation. New York City’s grid, Detroit’s ruin, and Los Angeles’ heterogeneous sprawl proved enticing topics of research and speculation.
But what of Boston? Is the city too mid-sized to warrant study? Or, as Cambridge’s urban backyard, too close to home for the educational institutions that choose to make projects on the city?
Chris Grimley, Michael Kubo, and Mark Pasnik don’t think so. As curators of IN FORM, currently on view in the recently inaugurated BSA Space, the public gallery within Boston Society of Architects’ new headquarters designed by Howeler + Yoon, they’ve created an exhibition that is in many ways a love letter to Boston. The trio is part of over,under, a multidisciplinary practice based in the South End that is also home to the firm’s gallery, pinkcomma. Over the past few years, that venue’s programing routinely positioned Boston as a site of architectural, design, and cultural production. They launched with Rethinking Boston City Hall in 2007, followed up with Public Works: Unsolicited Small Projects for the Big Dig and HEROIC, a study of local Brutalist structures, in 2009.
IN FORM isn’t exactly a culmination of the earlier Bostonian research, but it is does bring together series of thematics around the existing urban fabric, infrastructure, even emerging local talent. Subtitled “Communicating Boston,” the show covers a largely unspoken 50-year legacy of architectural, planning, and graphic inventions that increase the public’s understanding of the city. IN FORM projects a future image of Boston that is informal, but not arbitrary—designed, but not over determined. The show’s themes, Legible City, New/Public, and Futures, serve up answers in a variety of mediums, photographs, slides, info graphics, short videos, models, an iPad app, and a broadsheet.
“One way to speak of a city is to let the city speak for itself,” reads one of the several quotes on the front of the newsprint broadsheet offered for free in the gallery. The line is from Peter Chermayeff, architect and founding principal of Cambridge Seven Associates. And two of his projects, the mid- to late-sixties modernization of Boston’s MBTA system and Where’s Boston? a decade later, are featured under the Legible City heading. The later, a red, white, and blue inflatable pavilion erected at the Prudential Center in 1975, used eye-catching stripes to celebrate Boston’s citizens. Inside the structure, a sound and light show cycled through 3,100 images of contemporary neighborhood life, with residents’ voices filling the soundtrack. Within IN FORM, Where’s Boston? is displayed via oversized photographs and a suite of retro slide viewers. The project is framed as a kind of urban speech. As such, the represented city proposes a narrative and craves an audience. At the BSA, viewers stand in front of the slide show wearing headphones. Slipping between past concerns and present demands, they listen in on a city at the brink of its bicentennial moment.
Similarly, the curators unpacked from history the Experimental Information Center by Ashley/Myer/Smith from 1969. The Archigram-esque info center, made up of sonotubes and topped by large balloon-like canopies, was a hub made up of the multiple broadcast technologies of the time: slide shows, ticker tape newsfeeds, telephones. (A meticulously constructed model of fills one gallery.) Again, the curators chose to re-examine moments in Boston’s archives where architecture and citizenry come together in dialogue. But lest you think that they are stuck in a happenings-era reverie, they also included Landing Studio’s Chelsea Salt Thermal. A research study begun in 2004, the project studies the giant mound of road salt that appears every winter in Boston’s Chelsea neighborhood. Thought of as industrial blight by local residents, the architects worked with lighting designer David Rudolph to transform the salt into a site of public broadcast via large-scale projected messages and, through public programming, an abstract landscape of participation. A wall of drawings and photographs document Landing Studio’s process, but the dominant visual in the BSA space is a pile of salt, clearly yearning for engagement.
Three contemporary projects fall under the theme New/Publics: the Community Rowing Boathouse by Anmahian Winton Architects; the Cambridge Public Library by William Rawn Associates, Architects with Ann Beha Architects; and Utile’s Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion. These structures represent the best recent civic work undertaken by Boston in just a handful of years. A short film is dedicated to each of the buildings. As with the Where’s Boston? slideshow, the footage captures the ordinary. Only here, a building not the populace is the subject. Users flit through the frame, underscoring the need for cultural spaces and amenities in the city.
However, it is IN FORM info graphics that really offer richness in everyday processes. Charts and diagrams document daily use over time, hours of operation, and institutional data such as room allotments, number of books and computers or, in the case of the boathouse, number of shells (160). But it is a simple chart that sheds the most light on the alignment between architecture and civics. By listing all the agencies involved in the making of these projects—from the Boston Conservation Committee to the US Army Corps of Engineers—the curators make legible the bureaucracy underpinning urban life. It is this infrastructure is just as important to architecture as any design or material choices. IN FORM makes complexity visible, but isn’t interested in proposing any streamlining or efficiencies. A fact that is summed up by the Kevin Lynch quote that kicks off the exhibition, “A city that invites ordering is surely better than an orderly city.”