Art and the Infrastructure

Boston's huge Central Artery project is a test case of American cities' commitment to beautification - not just efficiency - in public works

WHEN the German archeologist Robert Koldewy excavated the walls of ancient Babylon 90 years ago, he discovered battlements overlooking a sunken road. These massive walls rippled with reliefs in molded and glazed bricks of some 500 animals in bright hues of blue and yellow. The elevation above this parade of bulls and lions was set in geometric designs still legible nearly 2,500 years later. Now, like the entrance to Babylon, the Boston Central Artery project raises the issue of how American cities define

their entries.

In the 1960s, St. Louis raised over its riverfront a metal arch designed by Eero Saarinen. In the 1980s, Charleston, N.C., and Columbus, Ohio, defined their entrances for interstate highways with long corridors of trees. Architects in Savannah, Ga., are proposing an environmental design of oaks and crushed oyster shells at the roundabout off the city's handsome new bridge that will tell visitors about the pattern of its famous squares. Now Bostonians are challenged to consider how a $5.8 billion highway project can serve as a memorable gateway to their city.

An additional $600 million was recently added to this budget, which was already the largest construction project in America. But will the new estimate, which includes inflation and structural modifications, ensure that future archaeologists will uncover a stunning late 20th-century integration of art and design, an entry to rival King Nebuchadnezzar's Walls of Babylon?

Mayor Ray Flynn's "Boston 2000: A Plan for the Central Artery" refers repeatedly to amenities along the artery, but there is no specific assurance. The project's arts administrator is hoping to hire some coordinators but isn't prepared to comment about plans, and no budgetary commitments have been made to specific projects. A specific line item is needed in the budget, along with a public process to generate and critique art ideas.

Insiders say that the engineers running the project don't really understand the value of public art and consequently are not pushing hard enough for it. Unlike present-day Barcelona, with its extraordinary $9 billion collaboration between artists and designers in parks and roadways, this American city has commitment to art. Why not? Have we lost our cultural self-confidence?

It is not too late to plan. We've all seen what happens when public art is added as an afterthought. Boston's project deserves more than tokenism or, worse, the postponement of planning until it is too late and the project is out of money or the construction is already completed without the integration of artwork. What of the artists groups picketing the project? They have been thrown a few crumbs, temporary works, some studies. A faction of architects and urban designers on the Artery project, to their credit, want something to happen, but is fund-raising within the business community the best that can be done?

Think about the evocative ways that lighting, abutments, tunnel entries, and, of course, the parks and plazas above can be dramatized to reveal both the archeology of the city and its changing dynamics.

Travelers to Paris, Stockholm, Brussels, and Mexico City have seen the integration of art and transportation systems that resulted from a cooperation between engineers and designers in these cities. The French have provided dramatic precedents for sculptural design in pedestrian crossovers and highway barriers along major auto routes. The elegantly differentiated bridges along the Merritt Parkway in New York state set an early American example - before the American Association of State Highway and Transp ortation Officials established standards of banal efficiency for highway design.

Recently, Radnor Township, Pa., and Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation set a new precedent when they supported the use of rocks excavated along Philadelphia's "Blue Route" arterial to create an entryway intended to recall the megalithic landscape the region's early Quaker settlers might have remembered from their native Radnorshire, Wales. Bridge abutments on a recently built Phoenix freeway include an artist's interpretation of Native American reliefs.

The federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991 emphasizes the concept of highway enhancement. Over the next six years, Massachusetts will be granted $181 million in ISTEA surface-transportation funds. Ten percent of this money is required to go for "enhancements." The Central Artery in Boston would be an ideal place to use federal money set aside for roadway beautification.

Just as the Boston Public Library, with its rich integration of the arts, became the symbol of Boston achievement in the late 19th century, so this sunken roadway could become an urban signature of the late 20th century.

Let's leave some tangible evidence of our artistic endeavors, not just for future archeologists, but for our own children and their children. Americans should be able to do at least as well as King Nebuchadnezzar's glazed walls - if we haven't run out of cultural conviction.

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