Lawrence A. Chan, the president of the Boston Society of Architects and founding principal of Chan Krieger Sieniewicz, is a man who has tackled some of the most complex design challenges in Boston. From the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway to City Hall Plaza to the Longwood Medical Area, he has distinct views of what a city should be and what his profession can accomplish. He sat down recently with reporter Casey Ross to discuss the development of Boston and ways to enhance its historic buildings and public spaces.
What got you into architecture and what are your favorite cities to visit in terms of their architecture and public spaces?
One of the reasons I got into architecture is that as far back as I remember, I had an awareness of my surroundings. I grew up in New York City. There was wonderful rich space and transparency where you could see the activities inside the buildings. It got me into thinking about cities and buildings and masses and open spaces. And when I go to cities now, I look for the type of environment that showcases their urbanity. If it’s Rome, it’s the wonderful narrow alleys that go from one place to another and then spill out into wonderful public squares. Or in New York, it’s the wonderful activities along many urban streets, and then you walk into a marketplace and go through to another little street. Those are the things I look for, not the specific signature pieces of architecture. Of course, those are wonderful to look at. But the elements that interest me the most are those public realm things where the life of the city unfolds.
How can Boston officials and developers be moved to implement some of the bold ideas architects have proposed to enliven City Hall Plaza and places like the stalled Filene’s site?
All it takes is some political will and some financing. Architects come up with a lot of interesting ideas that people very often aren’t aware of. One example is a recent public art project on the Greenway called the Big Hammock, designed by Hansy Better Barraza. It looks like a sculpture piece. It’s just out there, and people see it, and they’re just jumping on it. They’re engaged in it. And they’re probably not aware that an architect did this. It’s those little touches that really connect architects to the environment, architects to people, and people to a design object.
What do you foresee in terms of architects’ involvement in trying to increase activity on the Greenway and other prominent public spaces?
My firm did the original master plan for the Central Artery parks back in 1990. Our idea was to say, “Here you have this Greenway, this physical highway scar. If you take away that scar, you still have a scar that separates the downtown from the waterfront.’’ So we took Copley Plaza, our biggest public space, and we put it on the Greenway. We put seven Copley Squares on the Greenway, and in between some of these squares, we said, “Put the fabric of the city back.’’ And then all the buildings around the space would give it an identity. So when you walk from here to there, you’d be walking by shops and restaurants. There would be activity, and you wouldn’t feel like you’re just walking through this windswept expanse. So that was our plan in 1990. Unfortunately, once some public official said it was greenway, it was sort of like apple pie, American flag, and motherhood. You could not take it back. The big challenge now is to make it feel more intimate.
Boston, like most cities, has buildings that are representative of many different eras and styles. How do we preserve that diversity of design when the knee-jerk call of redevelopment is always to tear down and build new?
It’s entirely possible to do both, to preserve historic buildings and build new. There are many great examples of doing that, renovating Trinity Church and building a community room in the basement. Modern buildings can tolerate a lot more intervention than let’s say the White House, which is a pure object that’s classical. It’s very hard to imagine tacking on something new to it. When you look at some of the most successful cities around the world, modern buildings live very happily next to historic buildings. Even look at some of the historic buildings in Rome, things that are hundreds of years old. They’ve had all sorts of additions. St. Peter’s Church has had many additions tacked onto it. Depending on the ability of the architect and the circumstance and peoples’ acceptance of how things can be married together, it absolutely can be done.
Can such interventions work at Boston City Hall. Is it a building worth preserving?
First of all, it’s a really well-built building. And if you want to be contemporary about it, the energy required to tear down the building is astronomical. That would not be sustainable at all. It’s silly to even think about. It’s a building that can tolerate — and I think the original architect would confirm this — all sorts of intervention that could make the building function much better and improve it. There are plenty of issues to address, not least being the subway tunnel beneath the plaza, but it’s all solvable.
Is the movement toward green building limiting architects’ design latitude and is it having a chilling effect on new development?
I’m old enough to remember and be part of the first Earth Day in California. I was a graduate student when the first Earth Day happened. I like to think that today all those hippies are in a position that they can implement and manage a lot of [environmental] issues now coming to the forefront. A lot of these issues should be automatic. They should be part of our thinking that this is the right thing to do. It’s right for the environment. It’s right for health and all the other issues involved. You’re either going to pay for it now, or you’re going to pay for it later. The more using green materials becomes part of our daily lives and professions, it won’t be an extra cost. It’s a huge investment in our future, because we won’t spend as much on fossil fuels, we’ll improve the air environment, we’ll reduce the carbon footprint.
The construction slowdown has put a lot of architects out of work. Do you see any signs of improvement?
We are a service industry that is very much tied to the economy. So when times are good, we’re very busy. When there’s a slowdown, things are tough. But there are some positive signs. There are more building inquiries and permits being sought by developers. If people see a light at the end of the tunnel, they want to be prepared for that eventuality, so they’re planning, and that’s a very good sign. There has been some downsizing, but I think architecture is a very resilient profession.
Casey Ross Boston Globe October 3, 2010