BOSTON VISIONS. Imaginative Design Ideas to Improve a Charming Old City

IT was a sky's-the-limit opportunity: a chance to envision a new Boston. So thought the Boston Society of Architects, which recently hosted a national ideas competition, inviting architects and urban planners to send in their best plans for the city. Called, appropriately, Boston Visions, the concept proved irresistible. It drew 200 teams and individuals from 23 states and four countries, and was supported by a wide range of public and private agencies. The designs were as simple as transforming an unused naval drydock into a museum, as grandiose as slinging a dam across Boston harbor to protect the city from greenhouse-effect floods.

``Boston Visions as a whole was designed to get people talking about the short- and long-term future and get away from the day-to-day technical issues of urban planning, to free up people and let their imaginations wander,'' says Homer Russell, director of urban design at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

Perhaps the most ambitious proposal called for nothing less than the removal of Boston's Logan Airport, replacing it with a new waterfront community of 120,000. The airport (most of it) would be moved to a suburban Army base and joined to downtown by a 15-minute high-speed train running on commuter-line tracks. A small verti-port (for vertical take-off and landing aircraft) in South Boston would handle traffic between Boston's core and other city centers. The enormous 10-year Central Artery project that will put underground a major highway that now runs smack through downtown, and build a new underwater tunnel, was a popular focus. One designer envisions using the newly liberated land for a market, a garden, and a museum. Another turns the 4 million cubic yards of fill generated by the project to build up some of the more eroded islands in Boston Harbor, create additional wetlands, wildlife habitats, and trails, and widen public beaches. The project, called the ``Sapphire Necklace,'' is intended to be an aquatic version of Frederick Law Olmsted's famous Emerald Necklace, a series of parks strung through Boston.

While the competition focused on three areas - the waterfront, downtown, and the city's boulevards - half of the entrants opted instead for a fourth, open category. One of the more charming had a ferry running between Harvard University and South Station (a major Amtrak station), with eight stops. Another moved the site of the Boston Marathon to the original shoreline of Boston, long obliterated by landfill and buildings.

John de Monchaux, dean of the school of architecture and planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and one of the jurors, says of the entries, ``Their spontaneity defies easy categorization. They range from the polemical to the romantic, from the visionary to the simple. It was this diversity of intention and fact ... that made them so fresh and important.'' The creativity was not limited to the 22 winners and special mentions, he says, citing one nonwinning design that used abandoned cars to house homeless people. ``I think what's interesting is the way (the competition) was designed,'' says Mr. Russell. ``The framers wanted people to understand that Boston is an established, mature city and that a vision for the city did not include tearing down a huge portion of (it) to build rocket ports. People were excited about the challenge of taking a city with an established character and identifying parts of it that need fixing. Usually there's a clean-slate attitude, rather than carefully, responsibly going in with a small-scale surgical knife.''

Antonio DiMambro, an architect with Comunitas, Inc., in Boston, which won an award for its Logan Airport design, says, ``We are living in a moment of rethinking. The futurist ideas that were the trademark of the old masters of architectural form - such as Le Corbusier's Radiant City, with skyscrapers surrounded by green space - were not pushed anymore. If there were some attempts to create bits and pieces of cities in Boston Visions, you saw attempts to sew together things that were not working to make something that worked; like the Harvard-South Station ferryboat. It captured the imagination, because it made so much sense and could be done with little money.''

``You could say, if you were being philosophical, that if we're moving out of one period of rapacious destructive vision, through another period of no vision, then we might find another period of more humane vision that combines large and small scale,'' says architecture critic Jane Holtz Kay. She adds that none of the designs address two of the major threats to Boston's charm and liveability: too many cars and too-tall buildings.

Even though the designs have been taken down from their first showing at a brand-new downtown office tower, 75 State Street, their impact continues to ripple outward. Seattle and Milwaukee are in the process of starting their own ideas competitions. And various museums and community groups are holding six additional exhibitions, according to Alexandra Lee, project director for the Boston Society of Architects.

``The effect of design is to put this topic on the public agenda in a way it might not if someone hadn't drawn a picture of it,'' says juror Jonathan Barnett, director of the urban design program at City College of New York.

The prize of the Boston Visions contest was a mere $50,000, divided among the winners. There were seven first awards of $5,000; six second awards of $2,500; and nine special mentions. So what drove the nearly 200 entrants to toil for months over a drawing board?

Antonio DiMambro, of Comunitas, Inc., (which actually won two first awards) says: ``The money we got didn't even cover the printing and reproductive costs. We didn't do it for the money. We did it for a couple of reasons: The opportunity to think about the nature of a city comes once every 40-50 years. It is a unique opportunity in the life of a professional. And along with a strong personal interest, it's really our civic responsibility, our contribution to the cultural debate about the future of Boston. And it was exhilarating! One of the greatest projects that my office and I have been involved in.''

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