Wednesday, February 3, 2010

SHIFTBoston Ideas Competition

On the frigid eve of January 14, 2010 the Institute of Contemporary Art was the setting for unveiling of the winners of the SHIFTBoston ideas competition. I was there. It was fun. Lots of folks who love the city, many of them unemployed architects, were enjoying the shared buzz of dreaming and creating a more lively and meaningful city. Check out the winners and significant contributions at the website below.

The brief for the competition, (from their website, says this:

Let’s make Boston dynamic!

The SHIFTboston Ideas Competition 2009 called on all architects, artists, landscape architects, urban designers, engineers and anyone to submit their most provocative wild visions for the City of Boston: WHAT IF this could happen in Boston?

SHIFTboston seeks to collect visions that aim to enhance and electrify the urban experience in Boston. Innovative, radical ideas for new city elements such as public art, landscape, architecture, urban intervention and transportation. Competitors were encouraged to explore topics such as the future city, energy efficiency and ecological urbanism.

This competition is intended to collect and inspire. The goal is to attract greater public interest in future possibilities for the urban environment of Boston. We want to inspire and engage the city community while encouraging positive awareness and a hunger for change. We believe a collective desire to push boundaries and challenge the familiar are the necessary seeds with which to grow a more dynamic city!

We seek to drive a SHIFT in thinking, perception, attitude, definition, process, method, planning, and organization in order to re-energize Boston’s urban environment. We are here to move Boston forward. Be part of the SHIFT!

Despite their plea for open endedness, the brief actually gave a lot of direction, which was not necessarily a bad thing, but it is easy to see in hind sight how the entrees fit within the topics. I actually think they did a good job of provoking a direction just enough to contain the range, while still encouraging creativity. Remember too that entries were visually rendered. The world as defined by trained architects. So while the competition was named an "Ideas" competition, the realm of possible ideas was clearly visual/spatial. Again, not a bad thing, but a niche nonetheless. A reshaping of the world achieved through building or using space in a different way. To be able to enter, a person needed to have a profound mastery over rendering software, so the universe of possible entrants was delineated.

Some clear themes emerged. 1) Active use of public space. Such as urban farming on the Greenway, floating temporary park barges, or the winner, which proposed turning the unused Tremont subway tunnel into a theater space. 2) Interactive environments, using technology in response to natural forces to heighten our awareness of our environment. Such as the wind and light responsive dynamic light display in Fort Point Channel, or the harbor cleaning floating responsive technological play/learn barge. 3) Responses to climate change, these ranged from the simply profound blue chalk "water line" marking the new water level after sea levels rise, to the adaptive response to flooded land that proposed an acceptance of change rather than resistance. The green underpass walls, wind and water technology collaborative learning center and shared use kayaks hinted at an acknowledgment of building a more "harmoniously integrated" environment. A profound reawakening of our relationship to the ocean seems destined for our future, and was on the minds of many entrants.

After introducing the judges,  presenting the runners up and discussing the "dominant entry themes" the event's MC Brian Healy yielded the floor to the political luminaries in the audience. There was a Boston City Council member, who liked what he say and spoke about the need for Boston to be attractive to young people, which meant creating more opportunities for active public life, and Kairos Shen, Boston's Chief Planner, who stressed realism perhaps more than anyone else there that night, all the while noting that if the mayor were here, he would be wildly happy. A representative of the State's Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development pleaded for help and ideas for solving the problem of matching building opportunities that he oversees with truly creative talent. A valuable identification of a solvable problem, and I am sure many in the audience were more than happy to learn about a new source for employment opportunities.

While those present clearly yearned for a loosening of the restrictions and negativity that so often meets new ideas, there was no shortage of inspiration. The temporary nature of many of the proposals held out the greatest hope for implementation. What many fear, (and rightly so in many cases), is the imposition of "of the moment" fads and fancies of architects that will not stand the test of time and are hopelessly out of scale and context to their surroundings. Loss of meaning through destruction of our built heritage is not necessarily the best route forward. But there is also the need to create and to respond to present needs and life styles. The ideas generated here, pose a third alternative with their innovative, and often temporary re-use and re-claiming of unused and unwanted spaces and places. This seems particularly appropriate in our short-attention span era and somehow suits the needs of a limited energy , finite space and financially constrained reality. The cry for more human contact, interaction and fun was palpable. While striving to be futuristic, the entries were, in reality, sublimely of the moment.

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