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Urban Acupuncture

June 6, 2000

Mary Ann Travis
mtravis@tulane.edu
Michael DeMocker

Tulane alumni Wellington Reiter and Hadrian Millon battle the forces of politics and bureaucracy in the Big Dig--the largest and most complex highway construction project ever in North America. They fight for a tower and trees, in precisely the right spot, making their mark on the changing Boston landscape. Hadrian Millon and Wellington Reiter have dug themselves into a big hole.

In a chrome-and-glass conference room near Dewey Square, in the heart of Boston's most high-priced commercial real estate district, the wiry, energetic Wellington "Duke" Reiter (A '81) talks passionately and persuasively about the 120-foot-high tower he wants to build nearby. Expensively dressed real estate developers, architects and private-sector financial types whisper in the ears of city officials as Reiter describes the vertical urban monument he's designed, inspired by ancient Rome.

Hadrian Millon (A&S '80), a blondish, mild-mannered man who wears a business suit appropriate for a state highway department consultant, has arranged this public meeting for Dewey Square "neighbors" to voice their concerns and give their opinions about the public art project planned for their "hood."

But Dewey Square is not your typical neighborhood. People don't live here--they make money here. And among this concentration of modern, high-rise testaments to Big Business, there's a lot more money to be made.

Dewey Square is anchored by South Station, whose facade resembles the Roman Colosseum. South Station is the hub of passenger train service for metropolitan Boston and much of New England. Dewey Square, which is really more of a triangle, is home to several wealthy institutions including the Federal Reserve Bank, the biggest building looming on the block.

The worried Boston officials scattered in the audience for Millon and Reiter's presentation are starting to get a little hostile. They are used to being in control of things, and they feel that control slipping away from them as the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, flush with U.S. federal highway money, puts a highway through (and under) their city.

They and their cronies don't have as much control of the project as they'd like. Reiter's tower adds another element that isn't theirs. Let's not commission any public art until we build more buildings around Dewey Square, say the city officials and their business pals. Millon sticks to his guns. Plenty of skyscrapers already exist around Dewey Square, he says. This is a built-up area with an established culture and long history. Why delay?

Besides, Reiter's design incorporates the immense foundation left over from the construction of a gigantic crane used in tunneling the underground highway. The crane dropped supplies and placed trucks into the tunnel. Only the crane's foundation remains at Dewey Square. Recycling this expensive foundation as the base for Reiter's tower makes both economic and artistic sense.

After the meeting, an interloper hooks an arm around Reiter's shoulders, pulling him aside. You aren't really going to do this now, without knowing what can be built later, are you? Maybe you can be a part of our action later. Why do public art before there are new buildings on the new surface that is being created? Shouldn't art respond to the new environment that's coming that we, the city, will be managing? But the divide-and-conquer scheme doesn't work.

Millon and Reiter are united. Millon wants to do his job, fold up and go home. Reiter wants to build his tower, mark this Boston spot and do it to stand the test of time. These Tulane graduates, who only met on the project known as the Big Dig, have dug themselves into a big hole. And they're not getting out anytime soon. The hole that Millon and Reiter are in--the hole from which Reiter's tower will rise--is a drop in the bucket in the whole Big Dig project or, as it is formally known, the Central Artery/Tunnel project.

The Big Dig is the largest construction project ever undertaken in North America. Only the Chunnel (the tunnel under the English Channel), the Panama Canal and the Alaskan pipeline rival the Big Dig's complexity and price tag. When completed in 2005, the Big Dig will have taken 16 years to build and cost $13.6 billion.

Although the project is dubbed the Big Dig, its marvels are not only underground nor do they all have to do with excavation. The Big Dig also soars. It includes two, side-by-side Charles River bridges, one of them the world's widest cable-stayed bridge.

The Big Dig does, however, involve quite a bit of digging. Many of the 161 lane miles of the new or reconstructed highway through Boston will be underground. Among its wonders, the 8- to 10- lane, 1.5-mile, below-the-surface Central Artery expressway--a leg of I-93--will feature the world's largest tunnel ventilation system. The northbound tunnel highway is scheduled to open in July 2002.

A second tunnel highway--the Ted Williams Tunnel, a section of I-90 that was the first major finished component of the Big Dig, completed in 1995--goes under Boston Harbor, allowing cars to zip to and from Logan Airport. It will connect to a tunnel highway underneath South Boston.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Growing up on the "backside" of Beacon Hill, Hadrian Millon saw firsthand the leveling of Boston's West End. Navigating by foot Beacon Hill's narrow, slippery, brick sidewalks, Millon and his father, Henry Millon (A&S '47, '49, A '53), a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, often went to watch the West End "progress," including the construction of architectural monstrosities such as Boston City Hall.

"We would walk down there and see everything torn down and see the new buildings going up. It was very exciting," recalls Millon. Hardly anyone protested the destruction of the West End at the time. "It was seen as getting rid of the old and bringing in a new award-winning kind of architecture. That was the spirit of the time," says Millon.

Some 20,000 West End residents, including Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame, were displaced from their four-story, tightly packed walkups to the suburbs and elsewhere. Their strong feelings about their neighborhood didn't die, though. And Millon is working to make sure their memories and feelings live on.

As the lead landscape architect for Carol R. Johnson Associates, a firm in the Big Dig joint venture, Millon is overseeing a public art project by artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, who is casting recollections of former West Enders into fence segments to commemorate the vanished neighborhood.

The West End public art project and others, including Reiter's tower, are all tied up in the Big Dig "surface restoration." Millon and his firm are shepherding the whole restoration--260 acres--including parks in East Boston, where the airport is, and along the Charles River, in sight of the new bridges. Downtown, three-quarters of the 27 acres that will be "reclaimed" by the dismantling of the Central Artery elevated highway are required by law to be left open and public. This space is Millon's domain. The other one-quarter is up for grabs for the city to build on.

Millon has been at work on the Central Artery surface restoration since 1997, exhaustively designing all aspects of the landscaping. And this year the final plans go out for bids. Specifications for what is expected to be a $10.6-million contract for trees, shrubs, perennial flowers and ground cover went out in April.

In a novel approach to procuring plants, Millon and his firm have linked the growing and the installation of the trees into one contract. They're requiring the nurseries supplying the trees to be within a three-hour drive from Boston so the trees will be acclimated to Boston winters.

While the trees will begin to be grown in 2001, they won't be planted on the Central Artery surface until 2005, when the elevated highway is down. And the final payment to the contractor who grows and plants the trees won't be made until the trees have been happy and healthy for a year in the new "pristine" Central Artery.

The trees--pear, maples, plane trees, ginkgo, linden, honeylocust, elms, oaks, horse-chestnut and scholar, along with flowering shrubs and ivy--are only the flora part of the landscaping. Millon's firm also has designed new surface streets, sidewalks, park benches, street lights, signposts, traffic lights, bike racks and irrigation systems.

They've also suggested grass lawns for sitting on while developers squabble over what to build on the valuable lots of reclaimed land. This whole construction package, including the dismantling of the elevated Central Artery highway, is melded together into one $300- to $400-million project. When the contract is awarded, it will be the largest single construction contract in Massachusetts history.

Ice, Tunnels and Dirt

For a consummate landscape architect, Millon is as amazed as an amateur gardener at the sheer volume of dirt that has been dug up in the Big Dig project: 13 million cubic yards of dirt. That's enough to fill Foxboro Stadium (home of the New England Patriots) 13 times. More than 4,400 barge loads of this dirt were hauled to Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor to cap what was formerly the city dump and create a 105-acre park in yet another Big Dig landscaping project. All the digging has been done.

Under Boston, the cavernous tunnel awaits its finishing as a highway. Walking up four flights of stairs to reach the roof of a parking garage in order to get a better view of Boston Harbor, the professional Millon shows signs of the awed little boy who watched 1960s urban renewal with his father. Millon points to a dry-dock construction site in Fort Point Channel. Concrete tunnels the size of high school gymnasiums sit on barges in the channel. These concrete tubes will be "jacked" underground to make the tunnel highway.

Not far from Fort Point Channel is the proposed site for Reiter's tower, at Dewey Square and South Station. Here, the tunnel highway will dive the deepest--125 feet under the Red Line subway, which runs underneath an active train tunnel. The engineering feats are staggering. In order to jack the tunnel sections underground and keep the subways and trains running throughout the process--to keep the city up and open for business, no matter what--the soil has been frozen to prevent settling.

Millon takes a westerly train out of South Station to pop in on Reiter in his Newtonville, Mass., home studio. When the train comes above ground one can see the ice that has formed around the black tubes snaking around the rail tracks. The tubes contain calcium-chloride brine chilled to minus-22 degrees. The ice is bright white and shaped like solid bubbles, similar to the ice that forms on non-frost-free freezers in old-fashioned refrigerators. A minor, but still astonishing, Big Dig sight.

As astounded as Millon is by the "gee whiz" features of the Big Dig, he's almost as surprised to have found out that he and Reiter were undergraduates at Tulane at the same time. Even though Millon took several architecture courses while Reiter majored in architecture, they didn't meet then. And their paths didn't cross when they both earned master's degrees from the Harvard School of Design--Millon in landscape architecture and Reiter in architecture.

It wasn't until 1998, after Millon had been Reiter's project manager for a while, getting the tower specifications incorporated into the Central Artery surface-restoration bids and dealing with the hard-edged Dewey Square community, that the two had lunch one day at a Cambridge, Mass., Mexican restaurant. Reiter mentioned a French Quarter eatery, and they discovered the connection.

"You could have knocked me over with a feather. I was stunned," says Millon. "It was an out-of-the-blue kind of thing that we both would now be on the largest project in North America."

All Roads Lead to Rome

Millon gets off the train in Newtonville, a Boston suburb with the look and feel of a small New England town, light years in feel--but only 30 minutes in real time--from Dewey Square. Millon strolls the short distance to Reiter's home, a former boarding house. Reiter's environmental arts firm, Urban Instruments Inc., has its studio on the second floor of his renovated, comfortable family home. Reiter is also a professor of architectural practice at MIT. Clearly, Reiter is talented.

His work bridges architecture, urban design, public art and landscape architecture, and it's all about the communication of an idea. For his Big Dig public art project, he says, "The point was to try to give a center to Dewey Square, so it's an understandable place. "Most people are only going to experience Dewey Square from their cars or walking. They're not really going into the square."

At the moment, Dewey Square is only a triangular traffic island with cars going through it--and, soon, under it, says Reiter. Between 7,000 and 10,000 pedestrians also walk through Dewey Square every day, going to and from their South Station commute.

Those who remember the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans have seen Reiter's work before. Then employed by Perez Associates, he helped design the fair's entrance gates with their giant, grotesque Mardi Gras figures. The gates were Reiter's first foray into urban monument building. Reiter has tacked a model of Dewey Square on his wall.

A model of a public art installation for the Weeks Memorial Bridge that crosses the Charles River, connecting Boston and Cambridge, sits in the landing. And dozens of images of spheres and circles paper the walls of another room. Reiter drags out a huge, 2-by-3-foot book of drawings by the 18th-century engraver and "picture maker" Giambattista Piranesi. "You'd like this," Reiter says to Millon.

The book has dozens of detailed etchings of a mythical Rome. Piranesi shows Rome as if all the buildings had gone away and only key monuments were left--the Forum, the Pantheon and the Colosseum. Reiter says Piranesi "is probably the most important renderer of what Roman architecture and urbanism are all about.

He would create real views of the city, what he saw when he was there, although he exaggerated everything and made it look bigger than it was and more romantic. He's saying, what if the city really was like that. It never was this great, but what if it could have been like that--amazing baths and temples and forums and all kinds of spots.

He took what he saw and turned it into a sort of mythology about how Rome was assembled, wholly fictitious but interesting and valuable." This Piranesian idea of a mythology of cities intrigues Reiter. "You can know a city, but sooner or later, it comes down to key monuments," he says. "In Paris, it's the Eiffel Tower. In London, it's Trafalgar Square and Nelson's Column. If you're in Washington, D.C., there's the Washington Monument, holding the whole thing together."

Doing the Right Thing

Reiter doesn't like to call his Big Dig tower public art. "I think we would have more rightly called this an urban design kind of project. Sure, it has sculptural elements, but it's not sculpture taken out of an artist's studio. Instead, it's the result of an analysis of what's going on in Dewey Square."

The passage architecture of Dewey Square, says Reiter, needs to be tall to compete with the towering, steel-and-glass buildings and made out of steel to be sympathetic with them. It also needs light because the buildings are spectacularly lit at night.

His tower, Reiter says, "is simply working with what's already going on there and trying to make it even more." Reiter's creation is not your typical tower. Its conical shape is skinnier at the bottom than at the top--an upside-down tower.

"We've turned the whole idea on its head," he says. The tower has nothing to hold but light. It will be made of translucent stainless steel, with tiny holes in it, like a theater scrim. Light can be emitted from inside the tower or light can be projected onto the tower from outside. "You shine light on the outside of it and it looks opaque," Reiter says. "Shine light from inside the tower and you can see right through it."

Reiter calls his tower "Urban Acupuncture" because if you put it "in just the right spot, good things will happen. If you miss, not so good. Knowing where the right spot is, is very important." Dewey Square has one particularly good spot, Reiter says. He points to his model, indicating where the old crane foundation is embedded in the square. For months, while operational, the crane had been a symbol of Big Dig construction.

The Big Dig management had even put twinkling fiber-optic lights on it to dress it up. Now the crane is gone, but its 90-foot-deep, half-a-million-dollar, concrete and steel foundation is still there. If you walked out of South Station today, you might fall in the hole where Reiter's tower will be.

As Reiter explored ways to give Dewey Square a visual center, he discovered that the crane foundation is exactly in the square's geographic center, equidistant from the existing skyscrapers, including the Federal Reserve Bank, One Financial and Financial Trust, and South Station.

Reiter has developed an expansive master plan, "A Constellation of Verticals," for Dewey Square, with an eye toward organizing the whole area into a cohesive urban design. In his plan, the tower is the main focal point, and he has included a supporting cast of small towers along with amenities such as a newsstand, rain shelter, information kiosk, cafe, and urban garden or forest of "light trees."

Mary Ann Travis is managing editor of Tulanian and a former resident of Boston. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2000 issue of Tulanian.

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