The SHIFTboston Forum

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on May 10, 2010

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“What if this could happen in Boston?”

This was the question posed by SHIFTboston, an organization that challenges designers to think critically about the experience and environment of Boston. Its 2009 ideas competition generated worldwide attention, with more than 6,000 responses from more than 90 countries, finally attracting 142 entries from 16 states and 14 countries. With a full house of 300 (mostly young designers) at the awards “forum” and even more waiting at the door, it was clear that there is widespread interest in the future of Boston and that a shift may already be underway.

The city’s renewed interest in connect-ing residents from every neighborhood with the waterfront was apparent in the number of entries that embraced the waterfront as the city’s next frontier. From barges demarcating the original boundaries of the city to a kayak-sharing commuter system to entire parks suspended over the harbor, many of the ideas recalled Boston’s history of expansion into the harbor, but with a new twist: reclaiming it without necessarily infilling. The winning team, Sapir Ng of Tsoi/Kobus and Andrzej Zarzycki of New Jersey Institute of Technology, embraced a mostly unconsidered frontier: Boston’s underground. Instead of building up or out, their proposal, “The Tremont Underground Theater Space,” ventured into the subterranean and made use of abandoned subway infrastructure, revived as an interactive theater space.

Other proposals took on the challenge of shaping attitudes instead of the cityscape. “Waterline” proposed a city-wide continuous blue line at head height — the presumed future water level after global warming. An honorable mention went to “What the Hell is That?” — a proposal to fetishize Boston City Hall as nail polish, makeup compacts, and other trendy commodities, merging architecture and cultural production to manipulate the public image of the building.

In a city that increasingly struggles to retain and attract talent despite the many world-class institutions that call Boston home, perhaps a shift in attitude toward design and development is the key. SHIFTboston brings to the forefront the argument that the city should not be afraid to borrow good ideas that work for other cities, nor be afraid of showcasing a willingness to experiment. As the winning entry highlights, Boston should likewise recognize, advocate, and make full use of what it already has.

Competition entries may be viewed at:

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