Charlie Klee responds with a Letter to the Editor regarding the Public/Private Issue of Architecture Boston. We’ve shared his response here. You can read additional Letters to the Editor regarding public/private spaces.
Reading Jerold Kayden’s article suggesting we catalog Boston’s Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS), I was struck by the simple elegance of this idea and the disappointing realization that I know very few of them. In an issue where much of the writing addresses the challenges associated with engaging the private sector and designing successful public spaces, Kayden’s message is positive and suggests an attainable course of action.
In support of that, I would like to add the Harvard Art Museums to the list of Boston’s public/private treasures. (I should note that I had the great fortune of collaborating with the Renzo Piano Building Workshop on this project, so I am certainly biased!) Throughout the design process, Harvard encouraged us to engage the greater Cambridge community for feedback about the architecture. We focused on developing a building that would “front” to the city as well as to the campus. We sought to be sensitive to the Carpenter Center next door and to the historic fabric of the original Fogg Museum.
But these considerations were all about the nature of the boundaries between the museums and said little about public access. It was Harvard that decided the ground-floor public spaces should be open and unfettered. It was the museums’ director, Tom Lentz, who decided to forgo the revenue of admission in order to share the iconic courtyard with the public. Through its new operational model and a design that includes entrances on multiple façades, the building welcomes equally those who plan to visit the galleries and those who might simply take a shortcut through the courtyard on their way to the T.
This sort of solution is very much ingrained in our practice, and we have several current projects, including ones at Northeastern and Boston University, that will add to the city’s inventory of privately owned public spaces. For projects like these, the approval process is not always linked to the inclusion of public spaces, but academic clients can often see the benefit of improving their connection to the city. This is more difficult, but not impossible, with non-institutional clients.
In an era where it is necessary to worry about issues of liability, maintenance, and return on investment, I am relieved to find examples of “win-win” solutions that seem to break the rules. While the Boston Redevelopment Authority can and should continue to push us from the approvals side of the equation, I hope that as design professionals we can find ways to encourage our clients to think as Harvard did in this case. Sometimes providing a true public amenity might be just what is needed to develop a compelling and engaging private realm.