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IN FORM – the BSA’s new exhibit

Have you made your way over to visit the BSA’s newest exhibit – IN FORM? The exhibit explores projects in Boston over the past 50 years. Three themes are explored: Legible City, New, Public and Futures. Each theme reflects on how design can shape our understanding the city’s urban landscape, while discovering new possibilities for development. SHIFTboston recently caught up one of the creators with Mark Pasnik of over,under to get his thoughts on IN FORM.

SB: What aspects of Boston’s history did you find most influential while creating this exhibit?

MP: In creating IN FORM for BSA Space, Chris Grimley, Michael Kubo, and I were drawn to the history of designers inventing ways to improve the legibility of the city. Often the projects we included were ones where architects were creating ways to make public events out of existing problems in the city. For instance, the Chelsea Salt Terminal work by Landing Studio or Where’s Boston? by Cambridge Seven or the Interim Bridges Project by Kennedy Violich all would have never happened without the architects inventing a role for themselves.

SB: What are your favorite cultural characteristics of Boston and how can they be reflected through design?

MP: Boston is well known for being a great walking city, and I find this to be one of its best urban features. Design has helped this in many of the cases we have highlighted in the show—not only making it easier for people to get around the city, but also interpreting what they see or creating events along the way. Yet we as designers can do more to enhance Boston’s clarity and enrich its activities. I’m just back from a week in Madrid, which is also a walking city. The difference is Madrid feels much more vibrant on foot, especially in its core. I’m hoping we can increase the vibrancy here through design coupled with public policies that encourage greater density and more activities that enliven streets.

SB: In your opinion, why is the combination of urban planning and architecture important to a city’s future?

MP: These disciplines shape the urban form and therefore create the framework for a city’s experiences and evolution. One portion of IN FORM is dedicated to the idea of urban futures. In particular, we highlight a project proposed for the Expo 76 in celebration of the Bicentennial. It was a megastructure designed to be built over the water south of Boston, which would have provided an entirely new neighborhood. The project was supported by the BRA and eventually fell victim to provincial politics. As radical as it may seem now, it was nothing compared to Boston’s physical growth that actually occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with efforts like the filling of the Back Bay.

Today, it seems to me we have lost the big picture in thinking about Boston. We are too tentative about the possibilities for urban change. This partly comes from a loss of respect for the disciplines of architecture and urban design after the trials of urban renewal and the rise of the public process. We need to recapture the prospect for larger visions and think more boldly about where our city can go in the future.

SB: What would you change about the current state of the city? Is there a particular neighborhood that you would focus on?

MP: Great cities continually evolve. Change should come across the city, not just in one neighborhood. I would like to see greater density in Boston, to increase its services and vibrancy for those of us who live in its core. The city also needs to provide access to a broader citizenry. This is true of many urban historic cores in the United States, where census data show that residents are overwhelmingly white and wealthy. One of the surprisingly positive results of urban renewal is that it created the only areas in present-day Boston with any demographic diversity. It did this through access to public housing. Perhaps we can find other better ways to increase Boston’s density and urban diversity. To do so, the attitudes in the city will have to shift toward embracing contemporary design, variation in scale, increased density, and inventive urban approaches.

SB: Do you see a bright future for upcoming projects within the city and why?

MP: I hope we are seeing signs of openness toward contemporary design in Boston. A series of recent projects has indicated the city’s collective willingness to place contemporary architecture next to the historical. All three of the projects in our New/Public portion of the show (Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion, the Cambridge Public Library, and the Community Rowing Boathouse) are positive examples of enlightened design that serves the public well. Other recent additions like the Gardner and MFA also indicate hope for better design to complement our historic fabric. Such buildings represent meaningful contributions to the evolving discourse that is the city’s form. As we go forward, the developments being proposed in Chinatown and the South End offer opportunities to invest in contemporary design. It would be ideal to see those developments achieve the same high standards that our recent cultural buildings have.


The BSA is located at 290 Congress St. Boston, MA and is open 7 days a week from 10 to 6. Be sure to catch IN FORM before it’s too late!

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