Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on November 30, 2010

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Chris Mottalini’s "After You Left, They Took It Apart" [Spring 2010] draws attention to the very real threat to many of Paul Rudolph’s architectural masterpieces. The loss of Rudolph’s work has been noticed beyond the architectural community, with the term "Rudolphed" added to the online Urban Dictionary to describe "any of innumerable mid-century modernist structures facing the wrecking ball."

The Paul Rudolph Foundation was founded to protect, preserve, and promote the architectural legacy of America’s foremost Late Modernist. One of the Foundation’s primary goals is advocating for the preservation of Rudolph’s buildings, and it commissioned Chris Mottalini to photograph these homes only after all efforts to save them had been exhausted.

We believe that preservation is a key part of educating others about Rudolph’s legacy — by perpetuating the direct experience of the architect’s spaces. As Edward Hopper noted, "If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint." The same can be said for the power of Paul Rudolph’s architecture — if its subtlety and spatial complexity could be captured, it would not need to be personally experienced in three dimensions.

It is encouraging to see that Paul Rudolph’s architecture inspires artists like Chris Mottalini to continue his work well beyond the Foundation’s original commission. But without preservation of the buildings he is photographing, the true genius of Rudolph’s mastery of space and light will be lost to future generations. History will not judge us on what we have built, as much as what we refused to destroy.

Nancy Berliner’s comparative perspective ["Not So Different," Spring 2010] addresses the mass clearance of urban fabric in Chinese cities in the light of our country’s past half-century of modernization. The fresh and concrete examples drawn from her personal life in China spotlight some of the planning issues that we indirectly tackle through a curatorial approach derived from the principles of fine-arts conservation. Those principles are flexible and robust, particularly as they were originally encoded in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Structures. They operate as physically conservative and either may or may not be culturally progressive. In any case, their efficacy as positive planning tools is questionable.

It is worth recalling that our country’s historic commissions and their legal powers mostly responded to post-World War II urban renewal and highway expansion when thousands of buildings were demolished. Today, damage to cities and towns may come less from thoughtless demolition than from our undermining historic town centers when we relocate retail, municipal, and county functions to sites that nobody can reach on foot. Anthropologists can characterize the cycle of successful historic preservation as the structural transformation from Trash to Glorious National Heritage, but in our profession more interesting narratives may already be taking shape as young designers pursue combined works with fewer curatorial inhibitions.

Your Re:Use issue [Spring 2010] was very provocative. We do indeed live and operate in a new era. For over five decades, preservation was paramount. It resulted in the restoration of significant landmarks and critical urban fabric, but the rules, ethics, and intentions of preservation have certainly changed. A curatorial approach to fixing a building in a particular place in time lacks relevance in the broader challenges facing the design community today — such as reuse of anonymous midcentury buildings, post-industrial landscapes, and more recent construction that is already obsolete. New guiding principals are emerging — frugality, sustainability, and the conservation of capital — and reuse can effectively achieve these goals. What is most exciting is the potential for reuse projects to fundamentally transform the meaning and purpose of the artifact, ultimately creating a new entity. The hope is that through these acts of re-appropriation we are enriching the environment by creating new meaning, but also by continuing an active dialogue with our cultural legacy.

George Thrush’s interesting article ["After Life: Designing What Comes Next," Spring 2010] concludes by suggesting the sensible notion that not all buildings deserve to be saved. This raises the provocative question of whether all communities, particularly suburban dormitory communities with no supporting transportation infrastructure or other inherent economic advantage of location, deserve to be saved. The first question isn’t really whether a suburban big-box retail store can be repurposed in place as a church or indoor racetrack, but whether any building would make sense in a particular location once gasoline prices reach six, seven, or twelve dollars per gallon, as they inevitably will.

As the article points out, "reuse will succeed because it makes economic sense," but those economics are likely to be wrenching and involve demographic shifts which inevitably require the abandonment of previously developed areas. The same energy-driven economics which will force the realignment of population around transportation infrastructure will also change the equation for material reuse. Rule-of-thumb ratios of labor to material costs per square foot for an urban new construction project are typically 60/40. This will change in favor of material as the embodied energy costs of materials rise. The value of components in existing buildings will therefore become more valuable, whether reused in place or recycled to be used in new buildings elsewhere. That geographically inconvenient big-box retail store in Thrush’s article may be reused after all, relocated piece by piece, which suggests a bright future for the building salvage industry particularly, and of recycling generally. Like the farmer in Amelia Thrall’s essay ["Recycling 2.0/ Materials," Spring 2010], we are all destined to be saving balls of string in the not-toodistant future.

It is clear that sustainability/reuse challenges are quite different in the industries of fashion, architecture, and consumer products, and that some progress is being made in each of these areas. I have followed the work of Natalie Chanin ["Recycling 2.0/Fashion," Spring 2010] after hearing her speak at a materials conference in New York and have been impressed with the creatively detailed clothes she designs out of reused t-shirts as well as the fact that she uses local Alabama women to hand-sew the garments. This is a praiseworthy model for other industries: reuse existing materials and create manufacturing in the US.

Reuse challenges in architecture and product design are a bit more complex. One of the hallmarks of good architecture is the ability to withstand the test of both time and taste. Thoughtful buildings could easily be repurposed if they are built to outlive the short-term mentality of our times. Cradle to Cradle guidelines suggest that for the recycling/reuse of consumer products to be cost effective they must be designed to be disassembled within six seconds. Lisa Ann Pasquale writes in "Recycling 2.0/Manufacturing" that "Matsushita’s Eco Technology Centre… assesses the ease of disassembly and recycling, and reports suggestions back to designers, so new units are easier to process." This makes complete sense; however, high disposal fees were the motivating factor, thereby justifying the cost of the technology center. What it all comes back to is that financial pressure yields results. In an ideal world, the bottom line would be three pronged and would track not only financial profit but environmental and social profit as well.

Jeff Stein captures the essence of Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano’s creativity ["Raw Material," Spring 2010]. I believe that their firm, LOT-EK, conjures up a special magic precisely because they studied architecture in Italy, where history is embedded visually and physically at every corner.

What emerges from this delightful interview is the opportunity for the highest form of architectural and design creativity to shape a physical environment that fits instead of disturbs a precious and precarious evolutionary process. The framework for our thinking has until recently been too narrow to encompass the hard-wired biophilia we unconsciously carry within us. It’s time to let it emerge, to be translated into the building professions and their education, and to free up the same delight in the found object that LOT-EK shows us, this time with the mindset of regenerating value for our planetary home.

Editor’s note: The architect for the project featured in "Old House, New Episode" [The Lurker, Spring 2010] is H. P. Rovinelli Architects of Boston.

Boil That Dirty Water

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on May 26, 2010

Boston-area residents have become acutely aware of the extent – and fragility – of their water infrastructure.

Making the invisible visible: If you live in Greater Boston, this map shows where your water comes from.

Making the invisible visible: If you live in Greater Boston, this map shows where your water comes from (click to enlarge).

Map of coffee shops open during the Boston boil water order

Map of coffee shops open during the Boston boil water order (click to enlarge)

On May 1, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick declared a State of Emergency when a massive water-pipe break interrupted water service to 30 Massachusetts cities and towns, including the City of Boston. Two million people were ordered to boil their water. The emergency lasted three days: communities implemented emergency water-conservation measures and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) activated emergency water supplies.

A few weeks later, it’s worth noting how much of a non-event this potential public-relations catastrophe turned out to be. Love that dirty water.

No, ArchitectureBoston didn’t plan the water-pipe break to make our summer issue more timely. But in recognition of this coincidence, we encourage you to check out the following resources.

  • Look to the MWRA, the state agency in charge of metropolitan Boston water system, for all the official information relating to the pipe break, including a detailed slide presentation to the MWRA board of directors (fascinating and geeky all at once), along with a New England Cable News video about the (still-working!) sewer system.
  • Making the invisible visible: If you live in Greater Boston, this map shows where your water comes from.
  • The Aquapocalypse through your eyes: Add your photos to the Boston Society of Architects’ growing Flickr pool documenting the crisis. Did you have trouble making it to work without your morning coffee? You weren’t alone. See the map of downtown Boston locations near an open coffee shop.
  • What happened and why? A special episode of RadioBoston gives you the skinny.

Sea-level Rise in Boston Harbor – Managing the Risk

Posted in Vol 13 No 2 by bsaab on May 20, 2010

This diagram illustrates high and low projections for global sea-level rise (SLR) over the next century, derived from data contained in the WWF / Allianz Tipping Points Report, 2009. In addition to illustrating the range of potential inundation, the diagram also suggests an answer to the question “How long do we have?”

Assuming that even a modest 12-inch rise in sea level would present a serious challenge to the functioning of a waterfront city such as Boston when added to flood levels currently considered 100-year-flood levels, one can read from this diagram that, in the worst case, this may happen as early as 2024, without taking into account any surge factor. On the lower projection, that scenario may happen as late as 2046, or 36 years hence.

Risk associated with buildings is predicated by both function and lifespan. Institutional buildings are typically designed for a 60-80 year lifespan (or longer), commercial buildings for less than half that period. Since a major infrastructure project may take 25 to 35 years from conception to completion, it is clear that defensive measures are necessary as a short-term precaution while more extensive plans are in process for the longer term.

For any specific application of this diagram, take the current FEMA flood risk (100-year or 500-year) site datum as the base datum and project accordingly. A storm-surge factor must be added to the base datum for sea-level rise. Depending on site exposure, wave action, wind speed and duration, and astronomical extreme tides, the storm surge may add as much as seven to eight feet to sea level. Note: for clarity, the straight-line graph is a simplification of what is in finer detail a curve depicting a geometric progression in sea-level rise over time.

How Long is the Charles River?

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

Sharp-eyed readers of ArchitectureBoston may have noticed a discrepancy in the lengths cited by Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, in our “Political Science” interview, and Christopher Swain, who swam the entire river, in our “Other Voices: Boston Harbor” feature. Here are their responses to the editor’s question about the actual length.

Bob Zimmerman (80 miles): The accepted length of the Charles is 80 miles. It’s actually slightly more than that. The accepted headwaters is Echo Lake, a drinking-water source in Hopkinton, which is fed by a small stream issuing from Central Hill in Hopkinton, but Christopher didn’t swim that little stream.

Christopher also swam beyond the New Charles River Dam into the harbor, which historically would have been the mouth of the Charles River at the beginning of its estuary, but with the creation of the dam first in 1908 and then again in 1976, the length of the river was “shortened.” Everything beyond the dam is saltwater, and therefore no longer the river.

Christopher Swain (81 miles): My calculation included the stream from the Central Hill Swamp, which is not swimmable—except perhaps by a frog. I did hike and wade this section, however (as I did every un-swimmable section) and that’s how I got a total of 81 miles.

The New Charles River Dam is, of course, man-made. The mouth of the river—the actual hydromorphological end of the Charles—stretches out underneath the spot now spanned by the Charlestown Bridge. Had I stopped at the NCR Dam, I would not have been able to claim I swam the river’s entire length.

When we try to fit rivers into man-made constructs, we do so in the interest of convenience, not truth. And I believe we do this at our peril.

(But what else would we expect a river swimmer to conclude?)

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Bauhaus 1919–1933: Workshops for Modernity

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

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Museum of Modern Art, New York City
November 8, 2009–January 25, 2010

Upward and Goldrosa, c. 1926, by Josef Albers. © 2009 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society

Upward and Goldrosa, c. 1926, by Josef Albers. © 2009 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society

The Bauhaus retains impressive cultural significance for an institution that operated for a mere 14 peripatetic years. When Nazi pressure forced closure of the school in its third and final location, many of the teachers and students emigrated westward; a few landed in Boston. Graduates of local architecture schools are the progeny of aesthetic seeds first planted in Weimar Germany.

The pedagogy at the Bauhaus focused on a potent question, one that retains contemporary relevance: to what degree should art engage technology? To draw or not to draw? The dense MoMA exhibition (still available online), packed with sketches, drawings, paintings, photographs, and objects, chronologically traces the Bauhaus’ relationship to industrial production as it shifted from a craft-based school to one whose motto became “art and technology — a new unity.” An example is a studio exercise in which students created patterns with only the standard keys of a typewriter. The resulting abstract designs (later used for factory-produced textiles) are a wonderful example of how the machine can be harnessed for creative good. But no matter the cleverness evident in such techno-forward work, it is difficult not to be charmed simultaneously by the meticulous, hand-painted color-theory exercises by the students of Paul Klee.

The impressively comprehensive exhibition features work by both instructors and students. The devotion of seminal practitioners to introductory teaching — among them artists Josef Albers and Vasily Kandinsky, architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — was remarkable at the time and remains so in retrospect. These are the figures who persist, and theirs are the works that visitors want to see; but the student work is equally, if not more, delightful for its confident, experimental exuberance.

Covering the Issues

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

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Periodical Roundup

Eco-Structure Magazine“Old is the New Green”… It’s about time. Green building and historic preservation are starting to talk. Hanley-Wood debuts its redesigned Eco-Structure, a quarterly focusing on environmental performance, with an issue on existing buildings, proclaiming on the cover, “The Past is Our Future” (January/February 2010). The new “Flashback” column — promising to visit structures to see how they’ve held up over time and explore lessons learned — is the strongest idea of the whole issue, though it needs greater analytical depth to be truly useful. Elsewhere, “The Height of Sustainability,” Sudip Bose’s cover story in Preservation (March/April 2010) on the comprehensive renovation of the Empire State Building, begins to provide that depth. This renovation is not about adding bamboo floors to the observation deck; this is about quantitative data on energy performance and economics. By reducing energy consumption by 38 percent, the developers predict they’ll save $4.4 million annually, and the project team hopes that it will serve as a demonstration project for other commercial real-estate renovations. In this, Preservation’s third “green” issue, Blair Kamin also takes readers beyond the obvious in “Friends or Foes,” as he explains and explores the tension between historic preservation and environmental conservation agendas. When environmen-talists propose adding heat-reflecting silver paint to the iconic black Sears Tower, admittedly things get tricky.

Time MagazineAnybody home?… Kanbashi, a newly constructed district in China’s Inner Mongolia, is designed to house one million people — and it’s empty. Michael Christopher Brown’s eerie photos prove it. Is this a sign of oversupply? Is China’s building boom really a building bubble? In “Ghost City,” Bill Powell poses these terrifying questions for Time (April 5, 2010). With residential and commercial real-estate investment approximately 22 percent of China’s overall growth and China’s GDP still rising significantly more than its European or American counterparts, Powell suggests that Chinese officials hope they can deflate the bubble without a pop. We do, too.

Urban magical thinking… Boston native Brendan Patrick Hughes offers a refreshing take on our favorite construction project in “Boston: The Big Dig’s Benefit” for Next American City (Issue 26). He suggests that the building boom of the last three decades has left us a changed city that is profoundly different, and presents a fascinating argument that the Big Dig should be understood in conjunction with the Boston Miracle — the community policing initiative that led to a 40 percent reduction in violent crime during the 1990s. It’s all about the idea of the city.

CNBC Business MagazineGreen design and green business… In the wake of Copenhagen and in response to the 10 percent of Obama’s stimulus package headed toward renewable energy, the business press is chattering. Buildings are known energy hogs, as the media like to point out. Published in London, CNBC Business (January/February 2010) offers a Euro-American view, discussing solar power, architecture, entrepreneurial pioneers, and promising “eco-business” concepts. Most intriguing is the air-conditioning system designed by London-based Artica that beats standard units by 90 percent. Better still, it requires no refrigerants, few moving parts, and it’s intended for existing construction. In Entrepreneur (April 2010), Julie Bennett asks “Are We Headed Toward a Green Bubble?” Reporting that the February 2010 stock index for American clean energy companies is up 25 percent over a year ago, she conveys cautious enthusiasm along with a primer for her non-MBA readers. U.S. News & World Report (April 2010) enters the fray with its own energy cover story. A mix of articles attempt a balanced analysis of current technology, policy, and practices, including innovative urban planning approaches from Denver, and recommended residential upgrades. Author Maura Judkis identifies the essential rub, however: even in this climate, an energy retrofit will likely not raise a home’s value. Finally, Harvard Business Review uses its latest “On Point” series (Spring 2010) to repackage articles around the theme of “Making Green Profitable.” Michael Porter, Paul Hawken, and HBS faculty present trends and ideas influencing business operations. Architects, pay attention.

Books: more thoughts on water

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

Covers of books

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The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, By Steven Johnson, Riverhead, 2006

Set in 1850s London, The Ghost Map is a superb detective tale of urban density, disease, fortitude, and plumbing. Steven Johnson tells, with page-turning mastery of urban and scientific detail, how the great metropolis was saved from cholera by one doctor’s pursuit of a microbe. Think Nova meets Sherlock Holmes, with Dickens providing local color.

Johnson brilliantly portrays London, the first modern mega-city. In 1854, the population density of the city’s Soho district was 432 per acre, or 276,000 per square mile. Compare Boston’s South End, with 21,000 per square mile, or New York’s Lower East Side with 101,000. Triple that to approximate the human packing of Victoria’s Soho, and still you’d be clueless of its malodorous, vomit-inducing stench: streets steeped in manure, shops teeming with livestock slaughter, tanneries, all manner of coal-fired industry — each emitting pungent airs. Worse was the reek of excrement pooling in fetid courtyards and cellars: as rural people poured into London, tripling its population in 50 years, human waste clogged the ancient system of cesspools and dung-handlers. Newly fashionable “water closets” made matters worse: the average household flushed 244 gallons daily into non-existent sewers. Enter the epidemic. Bacteria Vibrio cholerae had been around for millennia, checked by the human instinct against ingesting excrement, and widespread taste for the salutary antimicrobial effects of alcohol and tea. But London’s lethal stew was a perfect host for cholera outbreaks that decimated neighborhoods every few years. Johnson describes London as “permanent, rolling disaster, a vast organism destroying itself by laying waste to its habitat.”

The detective of the story, physician John Snow, discovered the truth that cholera is waterborne and becomes epidemic when drinking supplies mix with human waste. Victorian doctors correlated smelly streets with cholera and promoted “miasma” theories of airborne contagion. Noting that cholera attacked intestines and not lungs, Snow pursued his waterborne theory, though ridiculed by the medical establishment. Fearlessly visiting the dying to trace water supplies, he eventually linked the victims to a single well that abutted a hidden cesspool and convinced authorities to remove the pump handle. In that one act, he arrested a raging epidemic and founded the profession of epidemiology. (The John Snow pub marks this site today — high British honor.)

Johnson’s epilogue flashes forward to post-9/11 terrors facing cities today: ebola, anthrax, H5N1 influenza, jihad. Johnson worries most for urbanism when the nuclear-armed “dirty bomb” terrorist arrives. City life would be destroyed, he says, lessened by each look over the shoulder. I wonder how true that is. Urbanites show grit in adversity, comrades in courage and civility, exemplified best by the author’s subject, London. Cholera, the Blitz, smog, floods, the IRA, the 2005 Underground bombs — this great metropolis survives, and is greater for its trials. London calling.

Political Waters: The Long, Dirty, Contentious, Incredibly Expensive but Eventually Triumphant History of Boston Harbor — A Unique Environmental Success Story, By Eric Jay Dolin, University of Massachusetts Press, 2004

Boston has been profoundly affected by sewage. Though many histories have been written about Boston, most have failed to find drama in the history of its sewage. Political Waters recounts the roller-coaster of events that brought one of America’s best-known harbors into and then, remarkably, out of environmental despair.

From Boston’s earliest days, sewage was considered an unpleasant nuisance. Successful sewer management was measured by how quickly the wastes could be conveyed away from basements and streets — albeit to the shallow shoreline waters of Boston Harbor. But it wasn’t long before this “very stinking puddle” became a health concern, and public outcry coupled with emerging medical evidence demanded regulatory action — and the unofficial start of a near-two-century battle with managing sewage discharge.

Early attempts to solve the sanitation issue pushed the issue further “downstream” (deeper into the harbor), and the degradation of Boston Harbor continued well into the 20th century with little notable progress made. Dolin successfully paints the picture of the public’s ignorance of a pending environmental crisis; after all, the sewers appeared to be doing their job and wastewater was “out of sight, out of mind.” But when legal and political events began to converge and Boston’s “harbor of shame” became a national laughingstock during the 1988 Bush-Dukakis election, sewage was brought back into the public eye.

The book provides a factual and seemingly unbiased account of the events that ultimately led to the successful cleanup of Boston Harbor. As Dolin recounts the political decisions and engineering responses implemented throughout the course of history, he also presents numerous opposing points of view and alternative recommendations. Interestingly enough, some of the concerns voiced even in the early 1800s presaged environmental concerns today. For example, when the question of solutions for sewer and stormwater flows arose, the decision to combine them was made in order to avoid the cost of constructing double sewer lines and to allow storm flows to periodically flush out the sewers — despite some objections. Today, nearly a decade after the completion of the Boston Harbor project, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) pose a lingering threat, and an expensive multi-year CSO project is still underway in Boston and surrounding communities.

Now that we have our Deer Island treatment plant, 43 communities flush their toilets without worry. And 51 communities continue to turn on their faucets knowing that clean water from the Quabbin Reservoir will arrive. Dolin’s portrait of a public oblivious to impending crisis forces the question of whether the Greater Boston area today might be similarly oblivious to a looming crisis. Our waters are still impaired, and we have yet to solve the problems from stormwater runoff — CSOs, inflow/infiltration, nonpoint source pollution, and aquifer depletion. Are we doing enough?

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, By Steven Solomon Harper, 2010

Subtitled “The Epic Struggle,” Water is itself an epic work of anthropocentric political history in classic Western mode. Steven Solomon’s research into the relation-ship between cultural evolution and water is massive and perhaps unprecedented. In the notes preceding his “selected” bibliography, the author describes the challenges he faced: on the one hand, a dearth of books similarly investigating the role of water in history and, on the other hand, a glut of recent literature addressing today’s water issues — material too vast to include in a bibliography. Thus his many substantive chapter notes have an important role.

In Water’s enjoyable and dense pages, I found myself wishing for a presentation in reverse timeline or in some multi-threaded format. This might have allowed his con-cluding discussion of today’s global water science to complement the restatement of the history of “civilization” that is the focus of much of his attention. Solomon’s use of the term “civilization” — and many other terms used to identify the phases of cultural evolution — is ambiguous. In cultural anthropology, “civilization” refers to a phase of culture energized by the invention of agriculture and evolved during the “agricultural revolution.” The culture in which we have lived since the 18th-century “fuel revolution” might be termed a “post-civil culture of abundance” (enabled by fossil fuel and fossil water) — now in the process of morphing into a later phase, perhaps the “efficiency revolution.” All of these cultural phases are threaded through Solomon’s text but ultimately rolled into the catchall “civilization,” as in his prologue: “[Future] civilization will be shaped as well by water’s inextricable, deep interdependencies with energy, food and climate change.” But it is useful to understand we are at least two evolutionary steps away from that cultural phase.

Water is a worthy companion to Jared Diamond’s Collapse, similar in its effort to discover lessons of human history related to bioregional context. Oddly, Water does not deal with the powerful integrating force of current global culture, instead assuming that the planet will continue to encompass many semi-autonomous nations of water haves and have-nots. A striking example is the minimal inclusion of considerations of global trade in “virtual water” (embedded water), which dramatically alters local water use. Another is his light treatment of the challenges of bioremediation and restoration of natural biodiversity. The lack of discussion of the wholesale displacement of populations necessitated by rising sea levels and the effects of climate change is also significant.

Read Water. It takes the form of an evocative string of engaging historic narratives and carefully researched information. Although much of that information is limited to the standard Western bias of its historic sources, the book’s anthropocentrism is innocent and readily identified. Water is an honest and scholarly effort both to remind everyone that water is the basis of all life on earth and to trace the history of human technologies and the societies using them.

Design That Drives Us Crazy

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

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The Lurker

The premise: That driving in Boston is always bad, but in some places it’s even worse. Sometimes it’s bad design. Sometimes it’s bad signage or badly coordinated traffic lights. Sometimes it’s dumb policy. Sometimes it’s a piece of roadway that was designed 50 or a hundred years ago to handle a much smaller volume of traffic going at much slower speeds. But whatever the reason, certain intersections or interchanges are reliably, inherently nightmarish. These places feel not just ill-conceived but dangerous. They’re the places that make drivers grit their teeth and pray.

photo by Joan Wickersham

photo by Joan Wickersham

8:30 Cambridge. Driving west along Mass Ave, entering Harvard Square. Goal is to get through the Square and turn up Garden Street.

Travel in right-hand lane to avoid cars double-parked on left.

Now move into left lane to avoid getting trapped in right-lane underpass, while going very slowly to merge with speeding cars coming from behind on another road on the left.

8:32 Waiting at traffic light. Arrow turns green; move forward. But cars to the right of you have simultaneously received a green light; as you try to move right across three lanes of traffic, those cars are equally urgent in their desire to move left across the same lanes.

Blue car abruptly changes lanes and cuts you off.

Bus suddenly cuts from right to left lane heading for underpass.

Cars zoom by in right lane so you can’t move over.

Tan car honks at you.

You start, stop, swear, fleetingly imagine a utopian intersection where drivers with conflicting entry and exit points don’t all get green arrows at once.

8:33 Your green arrow quits long before the mess has time to unsnarl. Cars coming along Mass Ave from Porter Square now get green light and energetically launch themselves into the mêlée.

8:36 Still in Cambridge. Intersection of Brattle, Mason, and Ash Streets. Cars entering intersection from four different directions, three of which have stop signs. Cars traveling on Brattle toward Harvard Square and curving left onto Mason do not have a stop sign — but the driver waiting at one of the other stop signs has no way of knowing that. He starts across the intersection. Sudden braking, people inside cars looking scared and angry, glaring at each other in self-righteous confusion before driving on.

8:47 Traveling west on Soldiers Field Road in Newton, about to attempt entrance to Mass Pike. Start to make a big turn to the right.

Cars merge in from left.

More cars merge in from another road on the left.

And then a third road of four lanes of fast-moving traffic merges in from left. Those cars are trying to move from the left to the right-hand lanes. You need to get over from the right to the left.

Now 10 lanes of traffic from at least four different directions are suddenly weaving together and splitting off, a high-speed minuet happening on a very small dance floor.

8:48 A woman in a silver SUV makes eye contact: she will let you cut across. But no, turns out she was just making eye contact.

8:49 Good thing you know to get into far left lane before you reach Mass Pike entrance ramp, because the only sign appears too late to alert anyone who didn’t already know which lane to choose.

9:07 Route 95 South, just after the Route 9 exit. Sign announces that travel is permissible in breakdown lane from 6–10 am and from 3–7 pm on weekdays. Calm, official-sounding tone of sign makes you briefly doubt your suspicion that this is wacko policy.

9:09 At the moment, traffic happens to be fairly light, so no one is driving in the breakdown lane — which is lucky because a broken-down car is parked in it, lights flashing, hood up, owner pacing nearby looking anxious. You don’t blame him.

9:12 Get off highway to reverse direction. Get on again; a speeding black car whips very close by you on left, honking. Yikes. It was traveling in the breakdown lane and crossed your entrance ramp at 75 mph just as you were feeling your way up to the highway.

Calm, official-sounding tone of sign makes you briefly doubt your suspicion that this is wacko policy.

9:20 Traffic on 95 North is heavy, moving slowly, except in the breakdown lane, where it’s whipping along. A car ahead of you is trying to exit — it needs to speed up to enter the rapid flow of the breakdown lane and somehow simultaneously slow down to safely navigate the curving mouth of the exit ramp.

9:24 Move into breakdown lane, just to see what driving there is like. A car comes up fast and close behind you, while a slower truck moves up the entrance ramp to your right. Without the usual cushion of the breakdown lane, the diagonals of the merger have been shaved off into an abrupt and unforgiving right angle. The truck merges in front of you and you brake to slow down, hoping the guy behind you has good reflexes.

9:40 Back on the Mass Pike, heading east this time. A chance to experience Exit 17 in Newton / Watertown from the opposite direction. Fiendish. Two lanes of traffic on the exit ramp, merging into four lanes of fast-moving cars sweeping around from the left. You wait for a pause, venture out, and cross several lanes of traffic to get from right to left while other cars move across those same busy lanes from left to right. This is why you would not want to run with bulls in Pamplona.

9:50 Pull off road, park at Whole Foods, get coffee, and wait for hands to stop shaking. Get back on road.

10:32 In North End near Haymarket, trying to get on Storrow Drive heading back toward Cambridge. Remember you once succeeded at this, starting around here somewhere. Follow signs for 93 North, looking for more signs for Storrow Drive West. Suddenly you are on Zakim Bridge heading for Concord, New Hampshire. No idea how that happened (great view of Bunker Hill Monument, though).

10:37 Get off in Somerville at Sullivan Square intending to get back on 93 going in the other direction. No apparent way back onto highway. No signage. Venture under highway and drive for a while, eventually discovering mess of unmarked roads. Decide to turn left on one of them — but it’s a good thing you’re stopped at a red light, because the road you were about to turn into suddenly fills with oncoming cars, thus revealing itself to be an unmarked one-way street.

10:42 Take another unmarked left and hope for the best. Find yourself on the Monsignor O’Brien Highway, which may or may not be good but at least it gives you a moment to breathe. Science Museum is coming up on right. Nice cultural asset for city, but you vaguely remember it can be tough to drive around there though you can’t at the moment remember exactly why.

10:44 Oh yes — now you remember.

10:45 You happen to notice a tiny “Storrow Drive” sign affixed to a utility pole, and move back into right-hand lane which has apparently resumed its original function as a highway traffic lane after a brief, quixotic interlude as an entryway to the museum parking garage.

10:50 Getting off Storrow Drive. Unexpected fork in the middle of the exit ramp. Then a “Fenway” sign to the left, and a “Fenway Park” sign to the right.

10:54 Heading up Boylston Street (you think) toward Museum of Fine Arts. Many cars honking. At you? At one another? Arrive at an intersection where you know MFA is off to the left. A sign tells you MFA is on the right.

You decide to split the difference and go straight ahead.

Heading up Boylston Street (you think) toward Museum of Fine Arts. Many cars honking. At you? At one another?

10:56 Hospitals on all sides. You have no idea where you are or where MFA is, when you suddenly spot a small sign on the right telling you that the MFA is to the left.

11:05 Turning from Fenway onto Charlesgate East. A friend told you that it was always a nightmare trying to get onto Storrow Drive from here, but you follow the signs and have no trouble. False alarm. Proof that while some of these scary spots are universally and unequivocally harrow-ing, some are more subjectively bad.

11:10 Heading back to Cambridge across the Larz Anderson Bridge, and turning left onto Memorial Drive. Two lanes of traffic, but suddenly the right lane will fill up with parked cars. You know this and so you move into the left lane well before it happens.

But there’s another car ahead of you in the right lane, a green station wagon with an out-of-state license plate, and you can’t tell if that driver is aware of what’s ahead. You have to drive as if that driver is innocent and about to be shocked out of his or her wits, at which point that car will suddenly swerve in front of yours.

Sooner or later he or she will notice those parked cars, but when?

Slow down. Drop back. Wait to see what will happen.

Havana Revisited: An Architectural Heritage

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

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David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies
1730 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, Massachusetts
February 3–June 1, 2010

El Morro, Havana. Photo (right) by Cathryn Griffith.

El Morro, Havana. Photo (right) by Cathryn Griffith.

This exhibition immediately brought to mind a great observation: “In order for things to remain the same, there must be change.” But the Havana in Cathryn Griffith’s images tells a different story. Although things have remained the same, there has been no change to the urban fabric, making it seem almost fossilized.

Griffith’s urban documentation — a nostalgic then-and-now comparison of vintage postcards with her own modern photographs — captures Havana as a living colonial museum. The photos by themselves would have been simple episodic glimpses of the city, but combined with the postcards, they become a narrative that takes us through time and makes us think beyond the art before us. The social and cultural issues plaguing Havana today, which created the fossilized city in these images, suddenly become the point, which remains frustratingly beyond the reach of this exhibition.

Site Work

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

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Websites of Note

World Water Council

It’s not about you. The WWC takes a global view, promoting a “water secure world.”

Urban Harbors Institute

Based at UMass/Boston, this think tank is known for its policy, scientific, planning, and management expertise on marine and coastal issues, and offers a terrific set of downloadable publications.

The Boston Harbor Association

TBHA promotes “maritime industrial activity, environmental protection, and public access around Boston Harbor.” Site resources include event calendars, info on water transportation, policy papers, downloadable audio tours, and a guide to safe shellfishing.

Harbor Arts

This ambitious new organization promotes public art to bring global attention to ocean issues. Based in Boston, it recently launched the Boston Harbor Shipyard Gallery — which would explain the reports of a 40-foot floating copper cod.

Water Use Calculator

A shower, rinsing the breakfast dishes, watering the lawn…it all adds up. This easy-to-use site will help you calculate your household water use.

Rainwater Harvesting Manual

It’s written for Virginians, but it’s a handy guide for New Englanders, too.

The Tsunami Survival Guide

Tsunami waves can travel at 500 mph; on average, 10 occur annually. This site from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution features videos, interviews, and research. It’s fascinating stuff, even if you live in Worcester.


Yes, you’ve seen it here before. And you may again, because we’re suckers for one of the great urban experiences of all time. WaterFire celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. Have you made the trip to Providence?