[Gary Wang resides in North Cambridge and is a Senior Architect at Jonathan Levi Architects in Boston. Email him at email@example.com.]
Between a rock and hard place; Re-visiting the Porter Square design project
Despite all of its recent gentrification, Harvard Square still holds the urban fabric that made it a ubiquitous Cambridge haunt from its conception through the 1960’s and today. Our neighbor to the east, Davis Square, has made itself known as the hip neighborhood with modish restaurants and funky infill. However, our own Porter Square, although credited with naming the Porterhouse steak, has had quite an identity crisis through its history when compared to its more successful Cambridge siblings. So she sought to make a name for herself, eventually undergoing a makeover known as the Porter Square Design Project.
In 1997, a Citizen Advisory Committee was formed to oversee the square’s redevelopment. After the project went to bid in spring of 2004, the project was constructed and completed as it stands today, boasting flamboyant zebra stripes and pockmarked with fieldstone.
The project’s completion was hardly met with fanfare by the critics; it received a curt and exceptionally uninformative condemnation from the Boston Globe in June 2006. And although the executed project is glaringly far from perfect, I believe that the Porter Square Design Project deserves a more substantive, and at least educated, critique of what went wrong and why.
In 2002, the Citizen Advisory Committee and City of Cambridge worked to define the scope of work and began designing solutions with landscape architect Cynthia Smith of Halvorson Design Partnership, the firm in charge of the plaza.
Over the course of the year they addressed the functional needs of the plaza design and went through several iterations of planning. Later on, after they believed the programmatic elements had been documented and addressed, they selected artist Toshihiro Katayama, an emeritus professor of design at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, to design and implement the artistic components of the plaza under the city’s 1% for Art program. This division of labor was their fundamental mistake.
The project had some very difficult problems to address. Its functional needs were to improved bicycle and pedestrian traffic, no easy feat when dealing with Massachusetts drivers.
Alewife Photo by Gary Wang