Boston’s Vital Streets Extend Into the Water

Competition during Common Boston week addresses neglected urban connections

A city’s waterways hold the key to its reason for being. Study Boston’s relationship to its harbor, its rivers, its inlets, and you will find the story of its character. It’s all there:  the stories of its military history, its economic and industrial development, its urban values, and the forces that create its neighborhoods and shape its streets.

Because of this, the organizers of Common Boston chose to pay homage to the city’s waterways. For our Common Build design competition—an integral component of Common Boston week—we selected the Fort Point Channel.

If you make a fist with your right hand, it makes the shape of Downtown Boston. Boston Harbor surrounds the knuckles, the Charles River winds around the thumb and back towards the elbow, and Fort Point Channel runs from the pinky knuckle back to mid-wrist.

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The Charles River is long, leisurely, and manicured while Fort Point Channel is a stubby workhorse. It was an important channel for industrial activities in the 19th and early 20th centuries and connects the harbor with the underbelly of the city. It passes the backside of the main post office, the guts of the train station, the ventilation ducts of underground traffic tunnels. It’s not as pretty as the Charles but has a character that’s equally interesting.  Currently, it’s taking its place as a vital part of the Fort Point neighborhood.

This year’s competition proposed challenged participants to construct a temporary installation that speaks to the re-envisioning, re-utilization, and re-vitalization of Fort Point Channel. Do it in 72 hours and on a budget of $200 or less.  There was also another requirement:  the installations must be anchored in the middle of the Channel itself. They must float, and, stay put.

This last parameter, that installations must float, provided ample reminder that design is a reflection of its opportunities and constraints. Wind, for example, poses challenge enough when installations are to be set up on firm ground. Add wind to water, however, and you have a roiling and capricious backdrop at best. The day of the competition was hot and incredibly windy.  Some of the installations didn’t work as planned. Others wouldn’t stay in place but all spoke, poignantly, to the challenges of design, be it for temporary installations or for streets.

One team chose “Movement Sound Change” as its theme and addressed how elements that seem uniform and alike from a distance are, up close, distinct and unique. They explored how unexpected sound and movement draw in passers-by. Buoyed pillars were designed to respond to the changing tides, revealing or hiding themselves accordingly.

Rebecca McWilliams presents her team’s project while team mates battle wind and choppy waters to install it.

Linda Mullen

Another team spoke to the highly visible as well as the hidden character of streets. They designed a shape that blooms, representing a street’s tendency to showcase the attractive and presentable while minimizing exposure to the undesirable. Their installation spoke to all that is revealed and concealed on a street.

Competition entry exploring how a street reveals and conceals its parts

Linda Mullen

A third team compared “The Vital Street” (our theme for this year’s festival)  to a strand of DNA, and explored how all characteristics of a street are woven together to give a street its energy and identity.  Bicycle rims were used as frames to support a helical structure. The whole installation was designed to rotate so all sides could be seen.

Competition entry comparing The Vital Street to a strand of DNA

Linda Mullen

A common thread ran through all presentations:  there are parts of the street we like to display, and other parts we would like to keep hidden. This is particularly appropriate in regard to Fort Point Channel. It is a stretch of water with an unmistakable industrial character, so much grittier than the picturesque Charles River Basin. I used to think that this waterway, along with the streets that spread out from it, needed to be hidden.

For many of us, the “vital street” has become synonymous with a “pretty street.”  Streets lined with parks and manicured boulevards are, of course, deserving of our appreciation. But for many years, I believed that “cleaning up a street” meant ripping out all the industrial remnants of times past, or of hiding them behind artfully constructed screens of shrubs, or of renovating them into trendy condos. The participants of this year’s Common Build show us that all parts of a street are integral to its character. There are many vital elements of street life that aren’t the stuff of postcards.

There is something exciting and vital about being up close to a city’s infrastructure, as one is at Fort Point Channel; to observe the massive volume required to house the main post office, or the intricate web of wiring required to make our train system work. I am amazed at the size of the ducts necessary to vent underground roads and subway tunnels. Being near these things is to take the pulse of a city and to be reminded of its power. These are vital streets to be sure.

As designers we discuss the topic of delight, and how it isn’t synonymous with beauty. There is room on the vital street for elements that aren’t beautiful because there is delight in finely tuned, functional elements that rattle and hum and keep a city moving.

Linda Mullen is a volunteer for Common Boston.  She is owner of Linda Mullen Design & Rendering and lives in Salem, Massachusetts.

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