[Gary Wang resides in North Cambridge and is a Senior Architect at Jonathan Levi Architects in Boston. Email him at email@example.com.]
Between a rock and hard place; Re-visiting the Porter Square design project
Despite all of its recent gentrification, Harvard Square still holds the urban fabric that made it a ubiquitous Cambridge haunt from its conception through the 1960’s and today. Our neighbor to the east, Davis Square, has made itself known as the hip neighborhood with modish restaurants and funky infill. However, our own Porter Square, although credited with naming the Porterhouse steak, has had quite an identity crisis through its history when compared to its more successful Cambridge siblings. So she sought to make a name for herself, eventually undergoing a makeover known as the Porter Square Design Project.
In 1997, a Citizen Advisory Committee was formed to oversee the square’s redevelopment. After the project went to bid in spring of 2004, the project was constructed and completed as it stands today, boasting flamboyant zebra stripes and pockmarked with fieldstone.
The project’s completion was hardly met with fanfare by the critics; it received a curt and exceptionally uninformative condemnation from the Boston Globe in June 2006. And although the executed project is glaringly far from perfect, I believe that the Porter Square Design Project deserves a more substantive, and at least educated, critique of what went wrong and why.
In 2002, the Citizen Advisory Committee and City of Cambridge worked to define the scope of work and began designing solutions with landscape architect Cynthia Smith of Halvorson Design Partnership, the firm in charge of the plaza.
Over the course of the year they addressed the functional needs of the plaza design and went through several iterations of planning. Later on, after they believed the programmatic elements had been documented and addressed, they selected artist Toshihiro Katayama, an emeritus professor of design at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, to design and implement the artistic components of the plaza under the city’s 1% for Art program. This division of labor was their fundamental mistake.
The project had some very difficult problems to address. Its functional needs were to improved bicycle and pedestrian traffic, no easy feat when dealing with Massachusetts drivers.
Alewife Photo by Gary Wang
But the greatest challenge for the plaza design was the artistic problem: Mr. Katayama was expected to anchor a very diverse set of architectural blunders, comprising the neo-traditionalist CVS store, an MBTA station whose identity is overshadowed by an overgrown red anemometer known as “Gift of the Wind” by Susumu Shingu, and the ultimate architectural sustainability joke—a suburban strip mall implanted into the heart of a city that received certification with the U.S. Green Building Council. By the way, did anyone notice that they removed all the ‘compact car’ spaces from the Shaw’s parking lot to make way for all of our SUVs? Is that not effectively de-LEED the building? Mr. Katayama was expected to glue together the pieces of Cambridge’s most eclectic intersections, with art.
So truthfully speaking, the plaza design succeeded, partially. The timed walk across Mass Ave. beats the previous two-step crossing. To a bicycle commuter, the left turn is from southbound Mass. Ave. to Somerville Ave. is still extremely awkward, but at least it is possible. (It was in fact approved by the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Committees.) The Porter Square design makes the shopping mall parking lot accessible, negotiating a three-foot elevation change with stairs and a handicap ramp.
But yes, ultimately, the Porter Square plaza failed in its artist calling. Was there ever a possibility for success? In a noble attempt filled with design irony, instead of knitting a disparate urban fabric together, Mr. Katayama’s design overpowers it with a weave of black and white precast pavers. Public seating, which was discussed numerous times in all the design reviews, never made it into the design because of the controversy and fear of providing the homeless with a place to rest. So sadly, the plaza recalls the already-failed rock park flanking the MBTA station, but does not provide any benches in a location where they might work.
Subsequently, I believe that it is much too convenient to blame all of Porter Square Design Project’s flaws on the artist. I believe the greater fault lies in the way we think about design as a culture. Mr. Katayama’s mission was impossible. All the supposed “programmatic” problems were solved first; the “designer” was brought in after the fact to add his dressing. Perhaps we will someday recognize that for public space, an open design competition process is the only approach, relying upon dialogue and the minds of many to generate a broad range of ideas and public interest. Our folly in the way we think about design is that we have divorced artistry from usefulness, or worse yet, we don’t think about it at all. And until we learn these lessons, we will undoubtedly see many more architectural mishaps in our own city of Cambridge.