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June 15, 2010

If you're in the Northeast this upcoming week, you might want to swing by Common Boston, Boston's fourth annual week of celebrating architecture and urban spaces. Focusing all the city's design energy at a number of "common points" on the neighborhood level, Common Boston is a little bit different from all the other Salones and ICFFs around the world. I wanted to find out why, so over two cups of tea at Toscanini's, I caught up with Justin Crane, budding architect and co-founder/co-chair of New England's biggest design festival.

Justin Crane, architect at at Cambridge Seven Associates and co-chair of Common Boston 2010
Justin Crane, architect at at Cambridge Seven Associates and co-chair of Common Boston 2010
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How did Common Boston emerge?
It originated humbly about five years ago, with a bunch of recent architecture grads just sitting around in a cafe. We were thinking about Boston...about how it has the highest percentage of architects of any city, and a general public that's very active in their community -- yet the two don't always see eye-to-eye. Boston is in many ways a birthplace of community activism, and we wanted to get the neighborhoods excited about such a big part of the city -- architecture.
What was the first Common Boston like five years ago? How has it changed since then?
It was actually originally called ArchFest, a one-week celebration of art and design. Now, we're focusing more on a cross-pollination of disciplines -- the organizing committee is still volunteer-based and made up of young professionals working in design, but we're incorporating much more diverse perspectives. We're opening buildings, giving neighborhood walks, and tapping into local experts in media, transportation, food, nonprofits, preservation, public art, and more to share their knowledge.
Which of your countless tours would you highlight and recommend to us?
We're holding a Public Art Tour of Jamaica Plain; a nighttime exploration of lighting design; a youth-guided tour of Chinatown; a wayfinding walk at the Arnold Arboretum led by graphic designers; a tour of the new Red Line T-stations given by the MBTA's Director of Design....there are so many!
And the special events? How do they relate to the choice for this year's theme, 'Where We Connect'?
There's the design-build competition Common Build, which we tried out last year to great success. This year, we'll be giving each team a site, three days, and a capped budget to work with neighborhood members to develop design solutions geared towards wayfinding and making communities more pedestrian-friendly. One thing that kept coming up over and over in discussion is the lack of physical, cultural, intellectual connections between neighborhoods, so we're partnering with LostinBoston to address this through a design-build challenge.
We're also debuting the Youthwalks Media Project -- a series of walking tour videos created by Boston teens that are personal portraits of their own neighborhoods.

commonbos books

[photos:2:Right]How would you respond to people saying that Boston is a city full of designers, but not necessarily as a city on the cutting edge of design?
Of course there is a lot of creative talent and teaching coming out of here, with some of the best architecture schools such as Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, Boston Architectural College, and more. Part of the issue is that people consider Bostonians to be kind of stogey -- and that is the belief of the general public. So with Common Boston, we are trying to connect two. Being on the cutting edge of design is not just about things being good looking -- but it's also about raising the level of dialogue about the city.
I've heard so much about the kick-off dParty this Thursday. Can you tell me more about it?
We're really excited about that -- it's being held at the Artists for Humanity Epicenter, and we're featuring inflatable architecture in the form of dressing rooms, thanks to co-organizer Mary Hale and her collaborator Brandon Roy. People are coming dressed in head-to-toe monochrome, or you can donate $10 or 5 pounds of clothing to rent a monochrome outfit for the night!
So what would you say is the appetite of design around here, and what's in store for the future?
We've had a lot of interest, and the level of design activism here is definitely on the rise. Common Boston has grown to become ten days long, and the future is going to see even louder of a rumbling appetite for these kinds of events all over the city.

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