How Boston’s public spaces are stepping up their art game

From swings to strings, previously ignored areas of the city get temporary decorations.

Boston’s public spaces are getting a vibrant makeover. Rainbow-colored twine, neon splashes of paint, and vibrant LED lights are juxtaposed against the city’s brick and cobblestones—but only for a limited time.

Throughout the city, public art has been popping up in unexpected spaces—literally. “Pentalum,’’ a temporary, pop-up inflatable, opens at The Lawn on D this weekend. The Lawn on D’s website describes it as “one-part science-fiction space station, one-part colorful dream, one-part futuristic playground.’’

Jim Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which operates Lawn on D, said the playground element was important.


“The idea is for it not to just be something to look at but to interact with,’’ Rooney said. “I think it’s an emerging trend—if you think about some of the more historic and traditional approaches to public space, some of it either deliberately or unintentionally feels uninviting. You don’t know whether you’re supposed to walk on the grass, whether it’s OK for kids to run around. We’re trying to take that to the other extreme and say you’re absolutely invited and encouraged to interact and play here.’’

The Lawn on D reopened this May. The summer season brought back the beloved “Swing Time’’ exhibit, designed by local architects Höweler + Yoon, which brings people flocking to the waterfront to play on the luminescent swing set. Architect Eric Höweler said the size of the area shows you don’t need a lot of land to implement a gathering space in the city.

“We need to focus on the public realm between buildings—they aren’t a byproduct or a left-over,’’ Höweler said. “They need to be designed by somebody, and as architects, we try to create a place through a playfulness, through technology and interactivity, but fundamentally about the experience of being there.’’


Rooney said that this summer was supposed to be the last season of the Lawn on D’s 18-month trial run before a convention center expansion took its place. But there’s uncertainty about the progress of the expansion. Instead, Lawn on D—which has been successful “beyond wildest expectations’’—could continue “indefinitely.’’

“We had some thematic aspirations for Lawn on D: We wanted it to be uniquely Boston, and we wanted to embrace some of the existing character of the South Boston waterfront,’’ he said.

It’s becoming “uniquely Boston’’ to incorporate artistic exhibits into previously ignored or uninviting areas of the city in lieu of more traditional development efforts. Earlier this spring, the Janet Echelman sculpture, “As if It Were Already Here,’’ opened at the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The miles of twine strung up between buildings took up vertical real estate that had previously been designated to a glass-and-steel history museum.

Instead, the Greenway has been filled with public art.

“We went from possibly having larger cultural buildings that would have added to but also been very different from the open space model we ended up with,’’ said Michael Nichols, the Greenway Conservancy chief of staff. “What we ended up with is an opportunity for very different kinds of public art in Boston.’’

A 20-page strategy plan details the project types and selection process through 2017. Nichols said the crux of the plan was the idea of “temporary exhibits of contemporary art.’’

“‘Temporary’ because it keeps people coming back to the park time after time to see what’s new,’’ Nichols said. “And ‘contemporary’ because there’s so [many] non-contemporary parks in Boston, that it wouldn’t be right for an innovative park like the Greenway. Contemporary public art is something Boston doesn’t have a lot of, and we could help the cultural conversation by bringing it into the city.’’


The plan emphasizes that these exhibits “consider the possibilities of 21st century Boston.’’ The permanent bronze sculptures of athletes and politicians fit for some areas of the city, Nichols said, but not for the Greenway. The only permanent structure there still has a temporary element: “The Abstract Sculpture’’ at the Armenian Heritage Park is reconfigured into a new shape every year.

Just steps away from the Greenway is the Dewey Square mural—currently a piece called “Seven Moon’’ by Shinique Smith. The 70-by-76 foot temporary mural replaced the colorful (but controversial) kid created by Brazilian street art duo Os Gemeos. Smith’s piece is set to be displayed through this August, until another artist is selected to decorate the outdoor, urban canvas.

“It’s all about innovation, creativity, and experimentation,’’ said Rooney. “It isn’t the red-brick feel of Boston, but it’s what makes Boston great.’’

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