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Architecture

Expanded convention center must do more than get bigger

By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2009

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Does Boston need a bigger convention center?

Do convention centers really do anything to improve the life of a city? Any city? Boston in particular? And is bigger better?

Already, Boston is home to a behemoth of a convention center with 12 acres of indoor space. The building near the South Boston waterfront, designed by Rafael Vinoly, is only five years old.

Four weeks ago, the Convention Center Authority held a press conference. It launched what journalists call a trial balloon. What if, proposed the Authority, we doubled the center in size? That way, we would be able to compete with other cities for the biggest conventions. All those conventioneers would need hotel rooms, restaurants, much else. They’d spend money. They’d bring economic growth to a part of the city that’s long been pretty stagnant.

There are economic arguments for and against such an expansion. I’ll leave those up to the financial experts. I’m interested in the quality of city life for the people who live there and those who visit. Looked at that way, a convention center can be - and usually is - an unmitigated disaster. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there are ways to make these Goliaths into better neighbors. That’s rarely achieved, but it’s possible.

First the bad news. Typical American convention centers are hideous, huge, blank-walled boxes. They’re surrounded by streets that are too wide, in order to accommodate all those trucks, buses, cabs and cars. Approaching such a center on foot, as a pedestrian, you feel alienated and unwelcome. The building divorces itself from its surroundings. It creates a dead zone all around itself, as if it were some kind of toxic infection in the city. There’s seldom much urban life in the vicinity of any convention center.

Often, these places are built far from the center of town, in locations where if you walk out the door there’s no place to go. In Chicago, for example, you feel like you must be in some other state. That’s true in Boston, too. The famous charm of our city is invisible and far away.

So what’s the solution? What makes these places work better? The answer is pretty simple, although hard to achieve. Everything depends on the edges, the periphery, the line of demarcation where the convention center meets the city around it. The center must reach out to shake hands with the city, not isolate itself behind a concrete wall or a moat of traffic.

There are at least two examples for Boston where this is accomplished. One is San Francisco and the other is Philadelphia.

In a way these convention centers are similar, in that both are removed one level from the street. San Francisco’s Moscone Center is underground, with museums and a green park at street level. The Pennsylvania Convention Center is one story above the street, allowing Philadelphia and its streets and activities to flow continuously, without interruption, through and beneath it. Neither building is allowed to be a massive barrier. Both are located near the heart of town.

Given Boston’s soil conditions, we’re not likely to bury any new part of the convention center if we do build an addition. But Philly’s center is worth a look. It’s not great architecture by a long shot. But it’s good urban design.

It’s built out to the sidewalk, not set back behind a useless no-man’s land. The streets that pass beneath it are often lined with shops and restaurants. The restaurants tend to be independent and chef-owned and some are housed in the center itself. They serve the locals as well as the visitors. Next door is the Reading Terminal, now converted to a food emporium and festival marketplace, like our Quincy Market.

The Philly center’s corridors and lobbies are often of glass, so you can see the city around you. Best of all, the city is all around you. You can walk to most of the places you’d like to visit. Philly is about to expand its center, more than doubling its size but keeping the upper-floor principle. This is one convention center that succeeds in reinvigorating a formerly derelict urban neighborhood.

Boston’s convention center can’t do all those things. But the principle holds. Any addition should be thought of not as a deadly, single-purpose monolith, a vast pile of hotels and meeting rooms, but rather as a mixed-use neighborhood in which lots of different things happen, as they do in San Francisco and Philadelphia. It should incorporate shops and restaurants at its edges, where they can engage the neighbors, including pedestrians as well as conventioneers. It should mitigate the inhuman vastness of its barren site by inserting some public streets. Good cities are made of good streets. The city should mandate these benefits.

If the convention center accomplished some of that, it might even do good for the South Boston waterfront. So far, this huge new piece of Boston feels like a badly designed New Jersey office park. The streets are too wide (they’re highways in the city, really) and they are hopelessly disorienting. The signage is misleading and the buildings are too far apart to create interesting frontages. Who has ever taken a walk for pleasure in this part of Boston?

Boston’s biggest selling points are its human scale, its walkability. Those are the qualities that attract visitors. Maybe a better convention center could bring some of these merits to a South Boston waterfront that needs them desperately.

Robert Campbell, the Globe’s architecture critic, can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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