The Big Dig Is Ugly

“It doesn’t matter how much it costs, so long as it looks cheap,” goes the old line about government contracts.  So what does the most expensive civil engineering project in US history look like?

I-93 North on the ramp from the Sumner Tunnel

Randomly patched pavement.  Fluorescent light fixtures from a hardware store that are unevenly aligned.  Concrete ceiling panels, already black with soot.  They were originally supposed to be metal panels, which would have been lighter and easier to clean.  The concrete ones, though, were somewhat cheaper, at least until one of them fell off and killed someone, when they turned out not to be  cheap at all.

It makes for a depressing drive.  Yet there is one attractive feature of the project, the Zakim Bunker Hill cable-stayed bridge:

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge. It’s kind of nice that it was named for someone who wasn’t a military hero or a sports hero or a writer or even a politician, but it’s also kind of baffling.

It was a late addition to project, put in when all other schemes for getting traffic across the Charles River had failed.   It looks great from the side, and impressive when you’re heading south on it towards the city.

Yet even here the Dig’s designers managed to screw up.   When you’re traveling north you rise up from the darkness of the tunnel into daylight, and the bridge appears before you.  It could have been a great Ah! moment, but instead you get this:

What would you rather see – the open sky and a soaring bridge, or a big green sign?

There’s an old trick in architecture where the entryway to a building is low and cramped.   You walk in, almost having to bow your head, and then come up a short stairway into a large, well-lit space.    It gives a little lift to your heart every time you enter.   It was probably wired into us by evolution when our mammalian ancestors first crawled up out of their burrows.  Frank Lloyd Wright used it in his famous Robie House in Chicago.

The Dig’s designers, though, decided that you just had to be told that the Tobin Bridge exit was coming up right there and then.   They couldn’t move that sign a hundred yards forward or back, and so ruined the best view in the project.

So, yes, the Dig saved Boston from terminal congestion.   Yes, it cuts the time to and from the airport in half.  Yes, it got rid of an even uglier structure, the elevated Central Artery.   Yes, it reconnected the North End with the rest of the city and opened a pleasant park right next to downtown.

Yet it itself is ugly, and I think it was designed to be that way.   Spending a little more money to make it look decent would have been too much of a reminder of its $16B cost.    There couldn’t be even a hint of sinful extravagance in this Puritan city.   It had to be built, and it had to cost a lot, but it couldn’t look like it did.

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