The Way Directions Should Be Given

I just picked up Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, and wanted to share this passage.  After Chapter 9 provides directions from A to B the way Google Maps would, she goes on in Chapter 10 to give them sensorially. If only routes could be given this way; the way we actually experience and move through the city. Smith writes the following,

“From A to B redux:

Sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab, exhaust fumes of a bus deadlock. 98, 16, 32, standing room only—quicker to walk! Escapees from St. Mary’s, Paddington: expectant father smoking, old lady wheeling herself in a wheelchair smoking, die-hard holding urine sack, blood sack, smoking. Everybody loves smokes. Everybody. Polish paper, Turkish paper, Arabic, Irish, French, Russian, Spanish, News of the World. Unlock your (stolen) phone, buy a battery pack, a lighter pack, a perfume pack, sunglasses, three for a fiver, a life-size porcelain tiger, gold taps. Casino! Everybody believes in destiny. Everybody. It was meant to be. It was just not meant to be. Deal or no deal? TV screens in the TV shop. TV cable, computer cable, audiovisual cables, I give you good price, good price, Leaflets, call abroad 4 less, learn English, eyebrow wax, Falun Gong, have you accepted Jesus as your personal call plan? Everybody loves fried chicken. Everybody. Bank of Iraq, Bank of Egypt, Bank of Libya, Empty cabs on account of the sunshine. Boom-boxes just because. Lone Italian, loafers, lost, looking for Mayfair. A hundred and one ways to take cover: the complete black tent, the facial grid, back of the head, Louis Vuitton-stamped, Gucci-stamped, yellow lace, attached to sunglasses, hardly on at all, striped, candy pink; paired with tracksuits, skin-tight jeans, summer dresses, blouses, vests, gypsy skirts, flares. Bearing no relation to the debates in the papers, in parliament. Everybody loves sandals, Everybody. Birdsong! Lowdown dirty shopping arcade to mansion flats to an Englishman’s home in his castle. Open top, soft-top, drive-by hip hop. Watch the money pile up. Holla! Security lights, security gates, security walls, security trees, Tudor, Modernist, postwar, prewar, stone pineapples, stone lions, stone eagles. Face east and dream of Regent’s Park, of St, John’s Wood. The Arabs, the Israelis, the Russians, the Americans: here united by the furnished penthouse, the private clinic. If we pay enough, if we squint, Kilburn need not exist. Free meals. English as a second language. Here is the school where they stabbed the headmaster. Here is the Islamic Center of England opposite the Queen’s Arms. Walk down the middle of this, you referee, you! Everybody loves the Grand National. Everybody. Is it really only April? And they’re off!”

How great is that?


Island Neighborhood for the Boston Olympics

More images of the proposal by Yale students Leah Abrams and Mark Peterson for an Olympic Village for the 2024 Games in Boston. Like most of the student teams, Abrams and Peterson proposed a residential neighborhood that would endure after the Olympics (see my earlier post). By creating an island neighborhood, surrounded by canals and centered on a lush public open space, their scheme would be particularly marketable after the athletes move out.


Buildings with Zig-zag Stairs

Funny how one finds relevant precedent. I discovered the fully-rendered example below while looking for examples of the use of color on building facades. The graphic pattern and the architectural language are not my taste, but the project bears an uncanny resemblance to the Portaluppi project in my last post. Importantly, the depiction of the zig-zag stair concept in this rendering is much more accessible and appealing to a lay audience than the proposal from the 1930s below. I don’t think I would have convinced the team and client that it was a good idea by showing them a Fascist Party headquarters building (alone).

Glowing Lantern for ‘Little India’ in Singapore by Robert Greg Shand Architects

Fascist Party Headquarters in Milan by Portaluppi, 1939-40


The New Wood Architecture

I had the pleasure of hearing the newly-crowned Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban speak at MIT last month.  For anyone who missed it, the full lecture, the 8th Goldstein Lecture in Architecture, Engineering and Science, can be viewed here:

Aside from his wit and obvious humility, I was most awed by Ban’s innovations in timber architecture.  Expressed as a sculptured ceiling in his Haesley Nine Bridges Golf Club House, seen below, the timber forms simple arches that are weaved together to create three-story canopied columns.  The undulating structure reminds me a bit of the curved steel forms of our Harbor Islands Pavilion.


Haesley Nine Bridges Golf Club House – Korea, 2010. Photo: Shigeru Ban Architects

And in his Tamedia Office Building in Zurich, Ban uses mega-sized ovoid mortise and tenon joints to create a structural moment frame built entirely out of wood.  A sight to see indeed.  As we continue to push the limits of wood construction, is this the new wood architecture?


Tamedia New Office Building – Zurich, Switzerland, 2013. Photo: Shigeru Ban Architects

– Maressa

Belle Isle

It’s March 23rd, and tomorrow it’s going to be a high of 25 degrees. The best I can do to get away from it is to think of warmer days ahead, or behind for that matter. And so I thought of last summer when I discovered the Belle Isle Marsh Reservation for the first time. A friend and I did a quick bike tour of East Boston, had a Peruvian lunch that put us on the verge of comatose, toured the waterfront, and decided to keep rolling. Past the rail yards at Orient Heights, the entrance is screened along a road shared by a horse track. There, settled between tank farms and Logan Airport, is Belle Isle. Once called Hog Island, Belle Isle is a 152 acre nature preserve (of the 241 acre Belle Isle Marsh), and the last remaining salt marsh within Boston. 

IMG_1840Belle Isle Marsh Reservation

There are views of Downtown Boston in the distance, and airplanes drifting on the horizon. The obvious contrast between the industrial landscape on one side, and the residential neighborhoods of Winthrop on the other, lends the impression that you’re a part of something unnoticed. It makes it all the more unique.


Beyond the reflective quality of Belle Isle, and the gratitude that people had the foresight to preserve this area, it made me think of how natural environments fit into industrial landscapes. The historic nature of industrial areas—often water dependent—means that many of our rivers either bear the scars of thoughtless development, or else still feel the brunt of industrial uses on our river banks and shore lines. Yes, there are plenty of cities that have taken advantage of industrial relics and transformed them into parks (Gasworks Park in Seattle comes to mind), but what about truly integrating open space and industrial development. A couple years ago I worked on a project in Philadelphia, which sought to transform the Lower Schuylkill River from the backyard of a refinery and junk yards, to a riverfront trail system, focused on environmental restoration, new parks, and the proposition of a shared storm water system for property owners and new development. It’s an ambitious plan and boldly challenges the notion of incompatibility between heavy industrial uses and anything else.

PassyunkVacantSite_007Lower Schuylkill River and the former Sunoco Oil Refinery


Zig-zag Stair Pattern

One of the concepts we are testing for a proposed new garage opposite the planned second front entrance of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center (BCEC) is a façade comprised entirely of interlocking stairs. The project that initially spurred the idea is the unbuilt component of the Fascist Party Headquarters in Milan by Piero Portaluppi, shown below in a model from 1939-40. The system of stairs responds to the configuration of the auditorium within the building volume.

The project was the centerpiece of a superb lecture delivered by architectural historian Lucy Maulsby, my colleague at Northeastern University. The Portaluppi project is one of several fascinating fascist party buildings in Milan – both the central headquarters and neighborhood branches – that Maulsby discusses in her new book Fascism, Architecture, and the Claiming of Modern Milan, 1922-1943, published by the University of Toronto Press. While the politics and functions are different (to say the least), the spate of new branch libraries in Boston and the City’s almost-complete new municipal office building in Dudley Square use architecture to push official civic life to the outlying neighborhoods in a very similar way.



Maulsby suspects that Portaluppi got the idea from Figini and Pollini (their project is depicted in the Olivetti advertisement below). They had been Portaluppi’s students at the Polytechnic.

And I couldn’t help but notice that the stair of the Figini and Pollini project resembles the exo-stairs of Renzo Piano’s relatively recently completed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Which all means that as we work through this idea, the inspiration will be coming from many directions, but mostly from Italy.

Update: See additional precedent for a zig-zag stair pattern in a more recent post above.



The Yale projects I saw a few weeks ago that were tackling the issue of an Olympic Village fell into two camps – projects that used the event as an excuse for more enduring urban design (albeit still ambitious) and projects that wallowed in the expo-ness of it all. This proposal by Nicholas Muraglia and Sarah Smith originated with an analysis of the chamfered buildings that make up Barcelona’s Eixample district and ended with a project that accidently backed into a language of architecture that evokes Expo ’67 in Montreal, Cambridge Seven’s National Aquarium at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and Debra Sussman’s work for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – all projects that were a more whimsical response to the heaviness and seriousness of Brutalism and/or the lightness and seriousness of Mies van der Rohe’s American corporate work. While the proposal by Muraglia and Smith is too tropical in flavor (the sampling of Rio’s Burle Marx paving patterns has a way of setting a mood), maybe de novo urban districts in Boston should strive for the unexpected giddiness of this scheme. Boston is a crazy-quilt of diverse urbanisms as it is – from London-inspired Beacon Hill and the South End, to the French-inspired Back Bay, to the mid-Century modernism of Government Center – why not add another distinctive place, check-to-jowl with South Boston’s classic triple-decker fabric?

The Olympic Village for 2024 Olympics in Boston – looking in the direction of the Design Center and Cruise Terminal

Expo ’67 in Montreal

The National Aquarium, Baltimore, Cambridge Seven, 1977-1981

The 1984 Olympics, Los Angeles, Sussman/Prejza


The Olympics, Boston’s Back Lot, and Yale

Massport owns a large underutilized area of land south of Summer Street and just west of the Reserved Channel that has been off the radar for decades, even as the Innovation District fills in and the Convention Center Authority is making some important moves along D Street. There have been two reasons for this stasis. The first had to do with development politics that played out fifteen years ago when the first round of development was happening on the Waterfront (mostly within Massport’s Commonwealth Flats district and including the Seaport Hotel and two office buildings) and with the planning for the new convention center. Jim Kelly, a South Boston-based city councilor, drew a line in the sand (actually, land fill) that kept big vision development planning north of Summer Street away from the traditional South Boston community. His political pressure ultimately resulted in a hotel ban south of Summer Street, thus stymieing development speculation on vast tracts of land between Summer Street and the northern fringe of the South Boston residential fabric.

The other reason Boston’s “Back Lot” has remained underutilized has to do with the growing shortage of centrally located land for potential strategic industrial uses. During the past few years, the area has either been pinpointed as a potential expansion area for the Conley Terminal, Boston’s deep water port – specifically earmarked for overflow storage and staging for shipping containers – and/or as the location for Boston’s US Post Office distribution center, which needs to be moved from its current Fort Point Channel location to make way for sorely needed South Station track expansion. Both of these potential uses are interwoven into big picture Commonwealth of Massachusetts economic development initiatives, despite the relative lack of glamour of the uses themselves.

Yet despite the politics that embalmed the area and more recent rational planning arguments, the area by now is conspicuously underdeveloped and surrounded by ever-increasing land values. No wonder the district is a source of fascination to university-based design studios and visiting delegations of developers and planners that can’t help but notice the huge waterfront-facing desert smack in the middle of Boston’s dense and diverse urban matrix.

With this as a backdrop, enters the contentious initiative to bring the 2024 Olympics to Boston. Rumor has it that Boston’s Back Lot is one area that the consortium of backers has been studying as a location for the Olympic Village; a rumor with enough plausibility – and creative juice – that Yale’s Ed Mitchell adopted the proposition as the problem for fifty Yale School of Architecture graduate students. Importantly, the schemes they have been testing provide more important lessons for how to think about this area than specific strategies for the Olympic planners. In almost all cases, the student proposals weave the reconfigured edges of the southern terminus of the Reserved Channel with an extension of the existing street network to create a new center of gravity in what was once a no man’s land. The schemes don’t just provide the required program, adopted from the requirements that the New York Olympic backers used for their failed bid, they help make sense of edges of the disparate neighborhoods that surround the site and provide open space resources in a part of the city that is far from the Emerald Necklace and the shiny new waterfront a half a mile to the north. Perhaps the Olympics will provide the necessary excuse to look proactively at this area and not just preserve the land for problems, however legitimate, that originate elsewhere.

This proposal by Alissa Chastain and Elena Baranes weaves streets and canals at the scale of Amsterdam’s historic districts.

A scheme by Leah Abrams and Mark Peterson was inspired by the neighborhoods of Venice. The large green square, a Boston version of the Venetian campo, is about the same size as the Public Garden and is intended to be an open space resource for the entire South Boston peninsula.

The Reserved Channel is resolved in a water basin organized on the street grid of the west end of South Boston in a proposal by Meghan McAllister and PJ Nakamura. Small piers contain rowhouses with restaurants and other public functions at their ends. A series of market halls frame the terminus of the Channel.

Update: See our additional posts on Boston Olympic planning, including a piece on the appropriate architectural character for the Olympic Village and ways that the costs of construction can be recouped by creating a highly marketable waterfront residential community.


DIY Urbanists’ Fairy Dust

Let’s add holiday lights to the DIY urbanism toolkit. A row of warehouses in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood have been decked out with a few strings of white lights and passing through one recent night made me realize the lights are like an urbanist’s fairy dust. What was once a bleak stretch of Washington Street is now a twinkling streetscape. There was little sidewalk traffic but the lights made the whole street seem vibrant and pedestrian.

The best part: it only takes a trip to the hardware store to buy a string of lights and an extension cord to make this upgrade. No master plan required! Of course, the street could still use wider sidewalks, some street trees and permeable pavers – after all, it is still bleak in the daytime. But until the Complete Streets overhaul hits this corner of Boston, I’ll be happy with the holiday lights. Of course, as with everything, it should be in moderation:

Disney’s Main Street. Photo: Trey Ratliff / Stuck in Customs via flickr.

– Brett

Agitated Corners

When it comes to the corners of buildings, parking garages and multi-family housing are opposites. In multi-family housing, organized along double-loaded corridors, the best units are located in the corners because the apartments have two exposures and can take advantage of long diagonal views out of the building. The corner in a parking garage, on the other hand, has no value because an inaccessible area is created where two rows of car stalls meet at a corner. Typically stairs and elevators are put there, taking advantage of the situation. This housing project in the Netherlands by 24H>architectureHousing Hatert in Nijmegen – pulls the spandrels of the facades away from the building mass at the corners, as if they were made of an elastic material. As the architects say, they set out to design “a sturdy tower with free formed balconies around, which make a recognizable sculpture from all directions. The new crown of Hatert is called The White Rose.” Although conceived for a Dutch housing project, it seems like an excellent solution for the inaccessible corner of a parking garage to me, providing locations on each level to look out over the city below.