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Beyond The Big Dig
About this project

What happens to the ribbon of land being created by the depression of the Central Artery may be the most important development decision to face Boston in a generation.


Needed: Vision and gumption

By Laurie Olin, 05/13/2002

I have been a longtime witness and sometime participant in the proposals for the re development of the land now occupied by Boston's Central Artery.

In 1984, my colleague Joseph Passonneau and I mounted a studio at Harvard's Graduate School of Design for students of Landscape Architecture, Architecture and Urban Design. We asked several questions centered on what physical and social project would be possible if one made changes in traffic and transportation in downtown Boston.

I was also one of several people who offered advice and critiques along the way to the recently completed master plan for the land above the Central Artery. It would be difficult to say with confidence that things have gone smoothly in the production of the current master plan for the territory engendered by the Big Dig.

With everyone and his and her brother trying to put their fingerprints on the plan, I can't imagine that anything special can possibly emerge.

Can a genuine, strong, workable, and beautiful design that looks forward to the Boston of the 21st century be accomplished within the current situation? I can't imagine it. Could Boston and its citizens change the situation? Yes, if there is the desire and will.

Remember Lewis Mumford's profound remark that "trend is not destiny." Or as a transportation planner friend used to say, "that's why we have steering wheels on cars." We can change direction when there is a good reason.

What do I think could happen if things were different and what do I wish would happen?

Put simply, there are two things that must change if this opportunity to reshape Boston's downtown isn't to be wasted. A genuine, first-rate client must be put in charge, and a lot of the petty, foolish, dated, and inane constraints, goals, and guidelines placed upon the project need to be thrown out.

I've never seen a superb project anywhere in which there wasn't a good client. Some agency and one (or very few) people with good sense must be put in charge, and everyone else must get out of the way. The corollary of this is that the public and bureaucratic second-guessing, nitpicking, and grabbing for power and pieces of the project must stop.

Questioning any further the balance of building parcels to open space or park parcels seems fruitless. The balance as currently proposed is fine. In fact, using imaginative structures to cover and tame most of the ramps is an excellent idea.

The citizens of Boston have had their say in great volume and detail, far beyond the norm. The various desires are manifest.

This is not a vote against democracy, nor is it one for dictatorship. It is a vote for leadership and art. Now is the time to appoint someone to take charge and to hire talented souls and give them a chance to operate.

Second, if a real and genuine design, one that is imaginative, robust, rich, and whole -- even fresh or beautiful -- and suited only to Boston is to emerge, the pastiche-laden historicist, precedent-driven, and simplistic constraints forced upon the master planners must be shed.

Normative park and urban design planning today in America has become far too cautious, fearful, and backward. It wasn't always this way, and it needn't remain so.

Surely, this is strange behavior for the most powerful country in the world with the largest economy in history. I prefer the old urbanism to the new one. It wasn't a thin copy of something in the past, but was alive, dynamic, and evolving. It also created public works with generosity of spirit and resources.

Does it matter? Yes. Cities rarely have a second or, in this case, third or fourth try at how to provide structure and purpose to their fabric.

Are there precedents for new work that does such a thing well in our own time? Yes. Think of Barcelona or Paris and the transformative projects enacted there in the past 15 years. These have been bold and unique, specific inventions, not collages of Xeroxed bits and pieces.

The Promenade Plantee/Viaduc des Arts in Paris is composed of only a couple of elements. But it is wonderful. There is nothing like it.

On numerous occasions in the past this is exactly how things worked here. There were grand projects. There was vision, gumption, commitment, and talent -- controversy broke like waves over those who took up the challenge -- and great things got done.

Boston, get your act together.

Laurie Olin is a landscape architect, partner in the firm of Olin Partners, and former head of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

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