The Boston Society of Architects museum explains why the city is the way it is.

When you visit the Boston Society of Architects’ headquarters, you’re in for a treat. The new space is giving the BSA a platform to speak not just to architecture professionals and academics, as it has for years, but directly to the public. With this expanded reach comes a few logistical problems. How do you present information in the new gallery and exhibit spaces that is relevant to architect-types and at the same time fun and exciting for families and curious visitors? Höweler + Yoon Architecture’s monumental neon green stair calls out to newly-lively Congress Street and hints at the spacious galleries inside and upstairs, but that’s just half the battle.

The inaugural exhibit, "In Form," up now through August 31 and curated by Chris Grimley, Michael Kubo, and Mark Pasnik AIA, sets the bar high for cross-audience attractions here and delivers something for everyone. The enormous second-floor exhibition space is dedicated to a kind of design archaeology of Boston, divided into three principal categories: the Legible City, New/Public, and Futures. Each presents a different take on the character of Boston and the sometimes shockingly progressive projects that it’s been home to.

Image: Mark Pasnik

The three buildings highlighted in New/Public talk about a kind of contemporary public engagement with architecture. Anmahian Winton Architects’ Community Rowing Boathouse, Utile’s Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion, and William Rawn Associates and Ann Beha Architects’ Cambridge Public Library are interrogated not just as amenity-providing institutions, but also as performative bodies themselves.

Infographics reveal the complicated and sometimes surprising face of new cultural infrastructures as they track the contents of each building, daily usage patterns, and the political climates they grew out of.

Image: Mark Pasnik

The Legible City projects highlight ways in which design has made people more aware of their surroundings. The 1990-92 Interim Bridges Project by Kennedy & Violich Architecture is one such example, where the deep construction of Boston’s Big Dig was mined as an archaeological site and an opportunity for education. Other Legible City projects are about engaging communities like that around the Chelsea Salt Terminal with the vast international salt networks it is implicitly a part of, and the MBTA modernization, which unified and made accessible a previously inscrutable transportation network.

Info Space, image: Mark Pasnik

One of the best things about the In Form show, and what makes it so much more than a run-down of Boston’s architecture history, is its investment in medium and its insertion of the BSA into the design history it tracks. Info Space, in the lobby area just behind the staircase, is a great starting point for the exhibition. Visitors can interact with a custom iPad app designed to introduce the architecture of the city in new ways.

Image: Sarah Hirschman

But take a walk around the show, and you’ll realize that the field of iPads is far from something new, nor is it as separate from the upstairs exhibitions as it may seem. Indeed, a type of information center connecting the user and the city is exactly what’s already on display.

Telex Caramate Bank, image: Sarah Hirschman

Upstairs, as part of the Legible City grouping, a feature on Cambridge Seven Associates’ 1975 “Where’s Boston?” exhibition takes the slideshow of images shown originally in an inflatable pavilion at the Prudential Center and re-presents it using a bank of Telex Caramate slide viewers.

Image: Sarah Hirschman

Visitors can click through the sets of images and interact directly with the artifacts of the city in a not entirely unlike-iPad fashion.

Image: Sarah Hirschman

The attention to medium is clear throughout, and that’s part of what will make these serious architectural exhibits also inviting to the public. Landing Studio’s engagement with the Chelsea Salt Terminal is reproduced in miniature in the gallery, a giant pile of salt with words projected onto it.

Marie Law Adams of Landing Studio. Image: Sarah Hirschman

What’s most exciting about In Form is its story about a mode of architectural engagement that Boston has fostered and benefitted from, one that can be particularly instructive to young architects today, and one that many other cities can’t boast. Very few of the projects in the Legible City group came about through typical means – they are the result of opportunism on the part of designers, creative stretching of resources and rules to accommodate a productive conversation with the public.

With this new space and the In Form show, the BSA doesn’t just show itself as an important cultural force within Boston and Cambridge’s architecture community, it shows off Boston for the inspiring and complicated range of issues it’s tackled.

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    The Problem With 'Fast-Casual Architecture'

    Washington, D.C., has a huge new waterfront development that’s fun, popular, and easy on the eyes. Is anything wrong with that?

  2. Design

    Experimental City: The Sci-Fi Utopia That Never Was

    With solar energy, recycling, computers, and personal mass transit, the 1960s-era Minnesota Experimental City was a prescient and hopeful vision of the urban future. A new documentary tells its story.

  3. Transportation

    How a Satirical Call for Bikelash Became a Real, Invective-Laden Protest

    People carried signs reading “Nazi Lanes” at the Minneapolis anti-bike lane demonstration, which several political candidates attended.

  4. A man walks his bicycle beside a train in Paris.

    Breaking Down the Many Ways Europe's City-Dwellers Get to Work

    One chart shows which cities do best when it comes to biking, walking, or taking public transit to work.

  5. Downtown Los Angeles is pictured.

    What Everyone Can Learn From L.A.'s Gentrification

    In its second season, WNYC’s podcast “There Goes the Neighborhood” explores the pressures of life in a changing Los Angeles—with lessons for listeners everywhere.