Design Critics Invade Boston

greenway
At the 2013 ASLA Annual Meeting in Boston, prominent design critics Christopher Hume, Toronto Star; Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer; Cathleen McGuigan, Architectural Record, and Christopher Hawthorne, The Los Angeles Times discussed their travels through Boston’s controversial Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and other sites using ASLA’s new Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston. The critics also critiqued the guide and explored the changing nature of design guidebooks in the digital age.

Long-time Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell asked the critics pointed questions about what they thought about landscape architecture in Boston. He said Boston’s landscapes have been designed since the city’s founding, with filled land. The city’s landscape and its history is then particularly “readable.”

Landscape Architecture Is an Afterthought on the Greenway 

After his day-long walk-a-bout, Hume said the RFK Greenway was a “failure of the city and landscape architecture in general.” The idea of the Big Dig was to reclaim the city from the automobile, but he felt the city has “all been but destroyed by the car.” The Greenway is only a “half-hearted attempt to remedy this.” Furthermore, he felt that it “won’t grab people if they don’t understand the history of it.”

Hume thought landscape architects were simply brought in to “decorate discrete sections.” But he didn’t place all the blame on the many, well-regarded landscape architecture firms involved, arguing “they had to intervene in a situation that was already a bad one.” He said the issues with the Greenway were due to the fact that “landscape architects were not involved from the beginning. A better layout of the underlying spaces would have gone on to solve many of the problems.”

Hume also felt like the Greenway was not part of the city. Along its length, he only saw three people walking. “The Greenway is not integral.” He said the project is an example of landscape architecture that “prettifies little episodes.” Great landscape architecture, he said, is about integrating the public realm into the city in a “way that makes sense for people.” These good places are “practical, useful.” People use these places daily — to commute or engage in city life. With drama, he added that “landscape architects must create places like this or their profession will be doomed as an afterthought.”

Naming the Designers Is Good

For Steven Litt, long-time architecture critic for The Plain Dealer, the guide is a great tool for reaching the public. He really liked the idea of “taking away the anonymity of designed public spaces. Someone designed these places. Naming the designers is good.” But he said the tour text in the Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston is often “discursive,” and there is no “critical point of view.”

As for the RFK Greenway, he said it was an example of how the “money for landscape architecture is often a very small amount” of the total budget of large infrastructure projects.

Litt did enjoy the path from North End over to Cambridge, and then walking under the Zakim bridge from Paul Revere Park to North Point Park, developments that are part of the new Charles River basin. “It was a fascinating experience.”

He felt it was clear that Boston is trying hard to change its infrastructure, and parts of that city are still in that process. He also floated the idea that the Big Dig really helped spur the redevelopment of South Boston. With the Dig, downtown has become more connected to South Boston, which helped “unleash development energy.”

There Is No Place to Sit 

Cathleen McGuigan, editor-in-chief of Architectural Record and a long-time New Yorker, has visited Boston often. She said “I love Boston,” but she was not big on the Greenway. “Who does it serve?” She complained that she saw no people there. Furthermore, “there was no place to sit.”

More broadly, she was wondering where all the people were in Boston. With the T and the high number of cars, Boston is actually “not that dense.” As a result, the public realm is diffuse.

But she said the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), and its connected waterfront promenade, in South Boston is an example of “design thought-out more holistically.” She said the project was more urban design than architecture — and has served as a catalyst for improved pedestrian and bicycle access. “That’s how it was conceived, the building is a piece of the landscape.”

Who Has the Critical Authority?

Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times, seemed fascinated by the issues the Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston raises. He said the notion of a guide — a digital guide — was in question.  He wondered where “the critical authority” on design now resides with guides like these being produced by designers and professional associations. “Who do we grant critical authority to?” He also wondered about crowd-sourcing content. “Can we rely on the public?”

He said the purpose of the guide was to provide “objective, straight-forward” tours, which he seemed to say it succeeded in doing, but he felt it lacked a “critical voice.”

On the Greenway, he seemed to largely agree with his colleagues.

He was surprised that Los Angeles and Boston are facing some similar issues, given how dramatically different they appear to be on the surface. Both cities are facing the challenge of creating successful public spaces in an automobile-dominated cities. “How can they repair the damage done by the car?”

Improving the Greenway  

William Saunders, former editor of Harvard Design Magazine, asked the critics, “Can anything be done to improve the Greenway?”

McGuigan said adding more trees and benches would really improve the spaces. “They are not inviting.” She also wondered how the Greenway could further animate the street fronts lining the linear park.

Levitt said Boston could do the “Danish thing” and limit car access, creating a sort of Ramblas of Boston.

Hume wanted the city to narrow the streets around the Greenway. “Pedestrians should predominate.” He also floated the idea of putting cars on one side and pedestrians on the other.

Hawthorne thought of the current design as a “first draft,” and the city should “redesign a more effective Greenway.”

Campbell, who has made his home in Boston for multiple decades, seemed to bite his tongue at some of the criticism of his home town, although he has also been critical of the Greenway in the past. He countered some of the criticism of the design, arguing that it was a result of many different clients, transportation authorities who had little interest in the subtleties of landscape architecture and creating space for people.

At Their Best: Landscape Architects Can Change How People See Cities 

The critics then discussed the broader evolution of cities and what this means for landscape architects. Litt and McGuigan both zoomed in on demographic change and the influx of young people in cities. McGuigan said very active young people want different kinds of social spaces, “not pastoral arcadias.” Hume added that the rise of single young people living in tall, tiny condos in Toronto has changed the design needs of his home-town. “We need to build better sidewalks.”

Hume complained that planners in most cities are “years behind the city’s actual changes.” But their impact, along with that of politicians, may not be that relevant anymore: the market is changing the face of cities. “The people have spoken. They want dense urban environments. We have built hundreds of condo towers that are all occupied. These people look to the city as a place to inhabit in the full sense of that word.”

For Hawthorne, the most important landscape development in Los Angeles in recent years is Ciclavia, which he called a “transformative series of events.” Ciclavia involves shutting down Los Angeles’ streets to cars, opening them up for bicyclists. While temporary, these events gives residents a new sense of what’s possible in the city.

Hawthorne thought that the nexus of urban design and transportation is where the future is for landscape architects. “These projects could be big wins for landscape architects.” Beautiful, functional public places create value. Hume seemed to agree, pointing to the massive waterfront parks being developed by West 8, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Philips Farevaag Smallenberg, and Claude Cormier in Toronto. “These are now beautiful places in the middle of nowhere, but they change how people see these neighborhoods.” Furthermore, new communities will pop-up around these places.

Explore the Landscape Architect’s Guide to Boston.

Image credit: Rose Kennedy Greenway / John Horner

4 thoughts on “Design Critics Invade Boston

  1. Jon Newton 11/20/2013 / 11:28 am

    Sadly not mentioned is Bremen Street Park, also part of the Big Dig, in East Boston. Probably the best and most used of all the parks created by the project.

  2. radnerdesign 11/20/2013 / 1:47 pm

    I bristle at the thought of design critics coming to my city and critiquing an open space that was only recently minted. They clearly don’t fully understanding the forces that went into engineering, design and planning those spaces. Those of us who lived through it can provide a different perspective. For example, several of the parcels were to be developed for institutional use but the recession killed those proposals. As a result, some of the spaces have been planted with ‘temporary’ landscapes.

    That said, I agree with Mr. Hume that there are structural issues with the planning approach to the Greenway. It essentially functions as a glorified traffic island. We would have been better off suturing the pedestrian areas to either the waterfront edge or to the City edge, and dealing with a 6-lane roadway in between rather than 2, 3-lane roadways on either side. Alas this was not possible due to the engineering requirements for on and off ramps to the roadway underneath.

    There are a few fine nuggets of space along the necklace. The Harbor Islands Pavilion comes to mind, as does the newly installed carousel (don’t smirk, it’s already a beloved piece of kitsch). More activity will come to the greenspace when all the proposed high rise apartments are built over the next 10 years, adding thousands of units and new retail space. I would love to see a new elementary school on one of the parcels.

    In summary, don’t stick a fork into it yet, it’s not yet fully cooked.

  3. Duane Francis Christopher 11/21/2013 / 2:00 pm

    The Greenway will mature and people will warm to it over time. I thought the Greenway is well done and I disagree with most of what the critics said in the forum.

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