Wednesday, April 11, 2012

David Dixon speaks. Will Kendall Square listen?

Last night, David Dixon head of the Boston firm Goody Clancy and a man of talent and experience in the urban planning world, got up before an audience of interested parties -- city staff, developers, MIT, neighborhood members -- and told them that Kendall Square in Cambridge is a great place, which is something they already believed.  And he told them that it can get better, which is something they sincerely hope.  And he said, this is how.  And they're still trying to parse that statement.

The meeting, held in a dingy room at the Kendall Marriott conference space, was a way station in a long planning effort, the Kendall Square/Central Square Study, initiated by the city over a year ago through a half-million dollar bid.

Meaningful urban planning is as much about participation as it is about analysis.  In that sense, it is as much a political process as it is a rational one.   The challenges that reside in Kendall's upcoming growth are as big as the opportunities and the stakes in this game are high.  A very important part of Cambridge's future will happen in this home to the intellectual energy of the city, with its huge number of start-ups and large pharma companies and in its university, MIT, but what happens will not be important for Cambridge alone.  The region and the state will feel the impacts of this.  And the economic growth is important both at a national level, and globally in the world of innovation and entrepreneurship.

At least the cookies were good.
Even in this context, Dixon's Powerpoint didn't surprise the weary eye.  His slides put some numbers to the projects that will be happening -- including the millions of square feet of lab space, along with the influx of housing that will be built in the area.  The maps he showed marked out zones of activity and in that wonderful way that planners do, he encompassed a whole dissertation of urban theory with a gesticulating wave toward some big circles on a map, saying "in this area, we expect to see a lively street front supported by a park", leaving the audience wondering what part of the Land of Oz exactly we were in.  A believer sees a way forward.  A cynic wonders what planners actually do.

If there was something of particular interest to this eye in Dixon's slides, it was at the level of building structure and dimension.  A great deal of time and effort these days goes into understanding, or at least trying to, how the shape and size of a building impacts  the urban context in which it exists.

Dixon noted that the type of commercial activity, in particular the lab activity, requires large floor plates.  That's a problem from an urban perspective because it implies big, blocky structures that denude the street of urban character.  Confronting this is important, and Dixon noted that even large structures can be made to appear smaller by segmenting them.  It's faux, but you have to work with what you've got.  A further important principle is the step-back, the height at which a building stops being a solid wall  and terraces back away from the street to open up to light and to sky.  New York is famous for its step-back provisions in its zoning, as is Paris.  Indeed, Paris has been working with this urban design principle for a very long time with many modifications over the years and many many successes.

Not staying for the group exercise portion, I left last night's meeting early.  When I got to the street, I noted just how far Kendall Square needs to go to become a place worthy of a name.  My darker self wanted to title this post "The Horror, The Horror" in honor of Mr. Kurtz and Marlon Brando and Joseph Conrad, and as a way of signaling the deep dissatisfaction one should have with the buildings in Kendall (see below), but some better angel grabbed me before I leapt.  Nonetheless, the photos do tell the story of the horror of mindless architecture and mindless urban design.  It always takes a long time to undo a bad idea cast in concrete.  These new ideas need to give us a better fifty years of urbanity than the last fifty did.

Third Street
1 Broadway

Volpe Center
MIT Campus

1 Broadway sidewalk 

M.I.T. Sloan School