Redrawing a Square

COPLEY Square, restyled just 15 years ago, will be getting a new look. The square, which celebrated its centennial last year, took its present form in 1969 - after a national design competition. But officials and citizens generally admit the design is ''not working.''

Copley Square is now in the thick of another competition. This time, say organizers and judges, so much thought, effort, and homework went into formulating the competition guidelines that an excellent design should result.

William H. Whyte, an urban space planner from New York and chairman of the competition jury, says design competitions for city squares are not uncommon. But, he notes, the Copley Square competition is unusual for several reasons:

Public participation. Mr. Whyte and others acknowledge the amount of input contributed by the public in forming the contest guidelines.

Boston's design guidelines. ''The client (Boston) did its homework,'' Whyte says. Guidelines were specific, and ''there was a strong consensus on what was sought - not just a smorgasbord of goodies.''

Scope of the competition. This is a ''very important competition,'' Whyte says. More than 300 entries were received from across the nation. ''The character of the winner (to be announced May 21) will have a very strong effect on subsequent design across the country.''

As it stands, Copley Square has a number of problems, city planners say. With a series of steps and levels leading down to a fountain below street level, and with few trees, it can be windswept and bleak. Set off from the surrounding streets by thick concrete walls, the square is often more inviting to drug dealers and derelicts than to families and vacationers.

Because of this, Whyte says, Boston - at the urging of neighboring businesses - took the approach: ''Let's start from scratch and do it right.''

In February, the slew of entries was narrowed to five. The detailed designs were due April 26 and are being kept at Boston Redevelopment Authority offices, under lock and key, until the jury arrives next week to make its final decision. The winner will receive $30,000.

If all goes as planned, the new Copley Square would be completed by the summer of 1985.

The five finalists - three established firms and two groups of unknowns - declined to discuss their proposals, so as not to jeapordize their chances.

* The SWA Group of Boston submitted a design linking Trinity Church, the Copley Plaza Hotel, and the library to the square. The plan calls for ''special paving across the streets to engage the buildings.'' Trees are used extensively in the design, in the square itself and on both sides of most of the surrounding streets.

* Krisan Osterby-Benson, Peter Schaudt, Michael Van Valkenburg, and John Whiteman of the Harvard Graduate School of Design submitted a proposal making ''a symbolic gesture to the history of Copley Square, and the development of common ground. A square panel of grass evokes the symbolism of the American common,'' says the group. ''Worn paths are welcome on the grass.''

* Samuel Coplon and Harry Dodson of Cambridge, say their design ''allows for ease of access and flexible use of space while mitigating the harsh and often inhospitable aspects of the urban environment.'' Trees and shrubs shelter much of the square's boundaries. A triangular reflecting pool at the library end of the square would be used in winter as a skating rink.

* Clarke and Rapuano Inc. of New York designed the square to be ''a 'living room' for the Back Bay and the commercial district'' as well as a ''front yard for Trinity Church. It is a place that doesn't try to get away from the city. It reaches out.'' The design includes some paved area, but also large expanses of grass. ''This is a 'sit on the grass' space,'' its designers say. Here, too, trees line both sides of all surrounding streets.

* Cooper, Eckstut Associates, also of New York, seeks to ''contribute to and enhance the street life along Boylston Street.'' A new ''promenade,'' canopies, space for the farmer's market, vendors, and a cafe line the Boylston Street side of the square. An open plaza in front of Trinity Church ''is meant to give the church, for the first time, a proper setting. The design tries to make Copley Square as much a part of the city as possible. It is a park . . . that tries to fit in more than stand out.''

The Copley Square Centennial Committee, formed more than a year ago to guide the redesign efforts, includes representatives from city government, local business interests, community groups, and adjacent private institutions such as Trinity Church, the Old South Church, and the Boston Public Library.

Several of Copley Square's corporate neighbors contributed $110,000 for administrative costs, and the National Endowment for the Arts provided a matching grant (one of only two in the nation). The centennial committee hired a team of designers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to write the competition guidelines and to plan the agenda.

Tom Piper of MIT says the emphasis on making the redesign contest a public-private process was ''absolutely critical.'' The centennial committee formed four subcommittees to consider activities, management, design, and financial issues. Between June and December last year, the subcommittees held more than 25 meetings, Mr. Piper says.

In addition, four public workshops were held in the Boston Public Library auditorium. ''We packed the house each time,'' he says. More than 1,200 people participated in the process, he estimates.

Patricia Severance, competition project director, says the committee handed out surveys to the audience at several workshops. The results were tabulated, and each subcommittee considered audience suggestions.

Eventually, the centennial committee adopted very specific guidelines for the competition. Piper says they call for ''elevating the plaza to street level, increasing the seating capacity of the square, increasing the amount of greenery , and introducing activity for anchors to make it safer,'' among other requirements.

One such ''anchor'' specified in the guidelines is a food-service operation, such as a cafe. Says Shirley Muirhead, a landscape architect with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA): ''We know that food shops, and the kind of activity they generate, is how you make the drug people go away.''

And Katherine D. Kane, who chairs the activities subcommittee, says her group considered other activities that would be appropriate for the square. The popular farmer's market, now held in front of Trinity Church a few times a week, should remain, she says, and the designs were to include an area for occasional performances, public functions, or folk dances.

Says William Whyte, ''we've learned a lot in the last 15 years (since the original competition).'' For instance, ''sunken plazas don't work.''

Last December the competition was opened to designers, landscapers, and architects across the United States. More than 500 individuals or firms registered, and the BRA received 309 entries - a ''very high participation rate, '' says Ms. Muirhead.

In February a jury of nine judges met for two days to narrow the field to five finalists. Mrs. Kane says the judging process was ''wild!'' She says the jurors considered the entries ''85 at a time.''

Whyte says he was ''apprehensive as a juror because of the number of entries.'' He adds: ''You've got to be ruthless - not spending time on the obvious duds.''

By the second afternoon, the jury had narrowed the field to about 25. As more were ruled out, he says, the jury was able to reach a ''strong consensus.'' The results are ''just about what another jury would have chosen.''

The five finalists, who received $5,000 each, were sent back to their drawing boards to come up with more specific details for their proposals. Designers were asked to submit drawings of the square from several perspectives, and in each of the four seasons. They must include specific information on paving materials, lights, benches, sculpture, and fountains, as well as consider the effects of wind and the need for safety.

The designers were also asked to estimate maintenance costs for the square. As a result of Proposition 21/2, says Tom Piper, ''the city is virtually incapable of maintaining its parks.''

The centennial committee is now trying to raise $4 million - $3 million for construction and design, and $1 million for a maintenance endowment fund.

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