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Floating Ideas for Boston's Waterfront
Shift Boston's barge competition reimagines the city's sluggish waterfront.
Lighter than Air, Rachely Rotem Studio and Phu Hoang Office's winning entry.
Courtesy Shift Boston

“Boston is 47 percent water and yet there’s nothing interesting happening on any of it,” according to Kim Poloquin, founder of the arts organization Shift Boston. Though an inflatable pink cloud-covered barge on the city’s sluggish waterfront might change that. Planned to be installed this summer on the Fort Point Channel, the winner of Shift Boston’s Barge 2011 competition, Lighter than Air by Rachely Rotem Studio and Phu Hoang Office (the designers behind Miami Basel’s 2010 Exhale pavilion), is a 2,200-square-foot helium and steam balloon cluster covered by a pink, camouflage netting that will hover and shift in shape above a raft of fixed bicycles. Though stationary, the bicycles will be rigged so that visitors and passers-by can ride nowhere in convoy and generate the water vapor necessary to fill the balloons and potentially power a sound system or lights completely off-grid. “Maybe they’ll also propel the barge to the other banks,” conceded Hoang at the awards event held at the Boston ICA on March 23.

Boston barge competition finalist.

Urban Quipu-Talking Strings entry from finalist J. Ross.

Since 2009, Shift Boston has championed international and local design competitions in the city, ranging from a lunar base last October to its inaugural, open-ended call for ideas to enliven Boston’s architecture and design landscape. Indeed, one particular entrant of the latter, Nicholas Biddle, who claimed that Boston was awash with decommissioned barges, was an inspiration for Barge 2011. “Other cities like Paris, London, and New York have created enjoyable destinations out of their waterfronts. We think it’s time that Boston did the same,” says Poloquin.

  Boston narge competition.
Finalist entry Flow It! Fold It! by S. Jin.

Praised by the judges for its boldness, Lighter than Air was selected from 102 submissions from across the globe, and, unlike Shift Boston’s other competitions, which though inspirational have been left unrealized, the barge project has the potential to become an annual competition and a permanent feature on Boston’s waterfront. The project has received support from private and public parties alike, including Friends of the Fort Point Channel and the Intercontinental Hotel, which will provide the access needed to realize the installation. Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) Richard McGuinness was one of the judges on the eclectic panel, which also included Olympia Kazi of the Van Alen Institute and structural engineer Matt Johnson of Simpson.

Though permission still needs to be granted, the Barge 2011 project jives with BRA’s plans to reactivate the south Boston waterfront. Long underused, the area was cut off by the John F. Fitzgerald Expressway, which from the 1950s severed the waterfront’s heavy industry from downtown until, in 2007, the Big Dig plowed it underground. In 2002, BRA launched the Watersheet Redevelopment Plan to introduce a public realm and reconnect the waterfront to the city. “Our fear was that we were going to end up with 16 water taxi stops,” said Kyro Shen, Chief Urban Planner of BRA. “So we asked: what do we want to see at the waterfront that would bring people down here?” The plan hasn’t achieved tangible results, and previous attempts to activate the city’s waterfront, such as Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s ICA completed in 2006, have so far failed to create the domino-effect regeneration envisioned at the time. To this end, Lighter than Air could prove successful as a new approach to reinventing Boston’s waterfront: a temporary installation that might stimulate more interesting things to “happen” on it.

Gwen Webber