Community Health & Environment Real Estate

Letter: Responding to North Square Design Proposal

Boston Public Works recently hired Beta Inc. to develop roadway and design improvements for North Square in Boston’s North End. The square marks the North End’s heritage as one of the nation’s first neighborhoods and is located on the Freedom Trail. A first look at the design has been posted with the following image. A public meeting is scheduled for November 19, 2014, 6pm at the Nazzaro Center, 30 N. Bennet Street.

North Square resident, Sandro Carella, who previously worked on a design bid, shares his thoughts and criticisms of the proposed design in the following letter.

“The words site and locality should convey the same sense that the word person does: a complexity so closely knit as to have a distinct character worthy of our interest, concern and even our affection.  No one should engage in site design who does not have a passion for the land, who is not as fascinated by the variations of site character as a teacher is fascinated by the marvelous variations of the human personality. And so, a site of uncertain form should disturb us as much as a person of disordered character.” —Kevin Lynch, Gary Hack, Site Planning, 1984 MIT Press.

The responsibility to design improvements in North Square is one that should be carried respectfully and with care and love.  A first glance at the proposal for North Square indicates that there is confusion on the part of the design team assigned to this project between what constitutes thoughtful design and what are perfunctory infrastructural band-aids.

Neither the design team nor the city seem to realize that the outdoor plaza that is formed by the buildings that bound North Square is a design problem of some complexity, defined by the interrelationships among the constituents and their artifacts and activities, each having achieved a delicate equilibrium over time.  All of these are about to be covered with a sea of bricks, an insensitive parade of constraining bollards and several monolithic stone seating elements cut and pasted directly from other outdoor interventions.

The rendering of the proposed “solution” to North Square does not even afford us the courtesy of preparing a proper drawing.   The lack of background buildings provide no indication of the contextual density of the place.   The St. John School and buildings beyond are missing, giving the impression that nothing exists beyond but blue sky.

The caption beneath is a string of sound-bites, and carries no explanation of how the proposal might achieve these promises.   The claims that  it will “improve the ability for people to enjoy the square”, “develop its identity as a cultural destination” and  “approached with due concern for community and stakeholder input and concerns” are all unsupported.  A graphic with catchphrases as “Sustainable, Livable, Walkable, Multimodal (what additional modalities the new design will introduce to North Square that was not already there), and Green” appear as a standalone set of unsubstantiated bullet points.   It tells us the designer believes we are gullible enough to accept this emblem of buzzwords, green-washing at its finest, as fact.

Boston is already a very “walkable” city – it is its place on the ACCESSIBILITY scale that is lacking, and the elements of North Square that prohibit accessibility are the North and East chains, the configuration and disposition of the brick sidewalks and access ramps, and most obviously the granite settes, or cobblestones, which defy both handicap and pedestrian navigation alike.   While the omission of “accessible” may have been just an oversight, it is telling of the editorial care with which this provisional presentation was assembled.

Sustainability with respect to site, implies considerations of energy efficiency, water management, mitigation of lighting pollution, measures that protect the habitat, lighting provisions for way-finding, which is sorely lacking in North Square.  The existing 4 shade trees at the center are represented as a pair, further indicating that any landscaping will be an afterthought – as if it can be applied in remedial patches after everything else is done.

All-important seating is relegated to 2 immovable and tired stone gestures – the most activating feature introduced over the past 2 years, a small array of moveable tables and the respite that they bring is not provided for.

It might be said that I am “nit-picking”, after all I was not selected for the design of North Square.  Let it be known that I studied this problem for several years not because I was after a lucrative contract with the City of Boston to do so, but because I care and love my country and neighborhood – and I will continue to do so forever.   As far as I am concerned, I succeeded in what I set out to do – I have convinced (or embarrassed into admitting) the City of Boston that North Square needs attention – resulting in the design RFQ and allocation of money for improvements.   Well, then, damn straight I’m “nit-picking”.     For $500K in design services, we ought not only be able to pick nits, but to be flattered that the design of a new space, befitting to our heritage and history as a nation, and unique neighborhood has in fact been thoughtful and sensitive and respectful to the concerns of the stakeholders and constituents of North Square.

We ought to feel that we have been treated with the respect that we deserve as denizens of this plaza.  The residents who live here, the businesses that are adjacent to it, the historic landmark that abuts it such as the Paul Revere House Association, as the Mariners House dedicated to its maritime mission, the Sacred Heart Church and Saint John School and the haven they provide for parishioners and children.

Instead we are offered images which appear to be rendered with clip-art and Microsoft Office.   Perhaps it was due on this day on the website, ignorant and devoid of any meaningful context that would lend it credibility.  The impossible camera angle, the missing buildings in the background further confound the viewer as it belies the actual changes in elevation and contours that are part of the unique physicality of this wonderful outdoor room and landscape.

A connection to the Rachel Revere Park and the disposition of is glaringly missing – in plan it appears to be beyond the scope of the $500K design and 2 million dollar improvements.   If sustainability is a concern, we cannot overlook a space that is several thousand square feet of pure asphalt!  The children of Saint John School use it every day.  Tourists and visitors gather in it constantly, and the trellis and fixed tables on its south side have been a dirt pit and embarrassment to the City since its inception in 1976.  It is not acceptable for public works to ignore this heat sink, with the excuse that  “a different department handles this” and still try to call the project “green”.

Consider some thoughtful precedents.  We need to recognize that North Square is in fact a fragile design problem to be carefully solved, as Michelangelo so gracefully resolved Campidoglio, or more recently as KVA so thoughtfully linked buildings for the North Bennett Street School, as Renzo Piano recognized the gravity of the charge with which he was entrusted when he distinguished between the “sacred and the profane” in the elegant addition to the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum.  The improvement of North Square is a problem of sensitive and important urban design, not one only of infrastructural repair, sound-bite and catch-word processing.

The points and platforms from which the various entities at North Square will be seen will have a profound effect on the visual character of the place – this was integral to my proposal of 2012 as rendered in the physical scale model.  A worthy design should reflect the pleasure of moving through the space on foot while providing ease for the physically challenged.   It must intelligently connect to the surrounding systems, and the designer must demonstrate due diligence in understanding these.

There appears to be no designer’s process to speak of, or evidence of data gathering.   I have spoken to no one interviewed by the design team, and know everyone personally who spends most of their day interacting with the site, the caretakers of the church, the teachers and custodians at the school, the members of the Paul Revere Association the abutting businesses, including both gift shops and restaurants, and no meaningful interviews or contacts have been initiated with them.  The Saint Mark’s or North End Historical Society are not cognizant of the development, nor are any of the other abutters.   I was only invited to speak to the designers (close to the eve of the upcoming meeting with the neighborhood and before I saw the design proposal) after they noticed a scale model of North Square in my office window, a remarkable observation which took an unusual amount of time to discover.   My own time-lapse photos (which I have conducted for 2 years) have revealed that a traffic counter installed on a Monday was removed that same Thursday, rendering data that is incomplete.   It is not about the count, but the behavior pattern of life that occurs here.  The view of the place by the person who experiences it, and is bounded by it daily, is missing – this is only understood through a dialog with that person or persons.  The “team” has ignored the possibility that they have not yet defined and outlined the problem or the program that North Square requires – instead they have proceeded straight to the task of giving it form for its own sake.

The temporal aspect of North Square is conspicuously avoided.  The various North End Feast societies that march through the Square, collect and celebrate there, conducting familiar music and drawing large ad-hoc curious crowds lend it a special character at different times of year.  Summer is quite different than any other season in terms of activities that north square accommodates, and for convenience this huge component has been skipped- along with all the neighborhood rituals that the season brings.  The perennial weddings and funerals seem as well to have been overlooked designers, as lining the sidewalk along the church with bollards at best completely intrudes and is obstructive to these activities.

When I brought to the attention of the City Engineers in 2012 the observations that I made for years, watching denizens and visitors of North Square celebrate, honor, gaze, revere, rejoice, listen, orate, perform, commiserate and grieve, marry, sit, stumble, fall, rest, play, genuflect and make the sign of the cross as they walk past the church, I realized that the path modifications in the plan of North Square could either provide or destroy its sense of coherence.

After we ask the proper questions of what the space needs, establish expectations of what we and the country deserve, we shall find that it is excellence that we must expect.  The designers assigned should like, nay LOVE North Square.   We love it, and should accept nothing less.

Sandro Carella
Crosstown Foundation for the Arts, Inc.

Carella is a Boston Artist and Lecturer in Architecture and Interior Design at Wentworth Institute of Technology and New England School of Art and Design at Suffolk University and has lived in the North End of Boston Since 1960.

3 Replies to “Letter: Responding to North Square Design Proposal

  1. Sandro worked so hard on this proposal. He lives there, works there, and gets No Sq better than anyone! He’s an architect!!!!! The city blew this one! The design is awful- looks like there’s nothing beyond the square. Respect those who live in the zone!!!

  2. The following comment was submitted via email:

    Where are our city representatives? Please don’t tell us this project went out for bid! I was both stunned and disappointed when I saw the proposed plan/photo on Matt’s blog! Someone is planning to replace our old North Square with a look- a- like “strip mall!” Brick and glass and some type of dental mouth guard structure that is suppose to be a sculpture of what?

    What happened to character and a reflection of our neighborhood. The architect’s proposed idea is not complimentary to any of our buildings that surround the square! It doesn’t come close to.
    making a smooth transition with the Paul Revere buildings or Sacred Heart Church. It’s jolting and disconnected to the surrounding structures. Come on city reps; we can do better than that! We have plenty of talent in Boston. We don’t want a “vanilla strip mall” in the heart of our neighborhood!

    Finally, thank you Matt for giving us a venue to offer our opinions. There are some pending decisions that we just can’t let fly. This is one of them!

    Maria Ciampa (aka Pidg).

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