Designing Boston!

When you think “Boston,” what comes to mind might not exactly be a sleek, futuristic vision of a city. The streetlights and brickwork of Beacon Hill, the narrow streets, the greenswards of Boston Common and the Public Garden are all breathtakingly lovely, but they don’t always shout “design!” in our 21st-century sense of the word. Why, you might even be tempted to ask, is Boston the base for an NAIS Annual Conference whose theme is “Design the Revolution”?

The “Revolution” part is easy to wrap your head around. The one we call the American Revolution started hereabouts, and images of Minutemen, Sons of Liberty, a harbor full of tea, and smoke curling up from musket barrels at Lexington and Concord probably evoke Boston; we’re revolutionaries, we are, by heritage. (If you’re the kind of traveler who likes to steep oneself in some local history before a journey, try Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill.)

But Boston has a pretty strong heritage in the world of design, as well. The Back Bay in which our conference will be taking place was systematically drained and laid out as a network of orderly streets and avenues (even if we don’t call all of them that) by some thoughtful urban planners a century and a half ago, and many of the city’s parklands, which in some spots gazing upward to Charles Bulfinch’s rather elegant Massachusetts State House, were indeed designed by no less than Frederick Law Olmsted, who lived in these parts. Another local, Henry Hobson Richardson, was a master of domestic and civic architecture; you can stop by his Trinity Church while you’re at the conference without having to go much out of your way.

The local universities have some architectural claims to fame, as well; I’m a particular fan of the two Eero Saarinen buildings—the Chapel and the Kresge Auditorium—at M.I.T., and if you like Frank Gehry, they’ve got one of his, too. Even if Silicon Valley is reputed to hold most of today’s patents on cool design, Edward Land’s Polaroid Paul Revere Silver (Minneapolis Institute of the Arts) camera (and even the now rehabbed-into-unrecognizability building where they were designed) was a kind of statement on technology and design in its day, and I am reminded that Paul Revere would be a household name even if he had never mounted and ridden a horse for the timeless beauty of his work as a master silversmith.

When I was a teenager I was told by a friend (a man of exquisite taste himself) that anyone with am aesthetic appreciation of the modern style would appreciate a new store in Harvard Square called Design|Research. He dragged me in and introduced me to the wonders of mid-century modern in its most forward-thinking application: a whole building full of Marimekko fabrics, Dansk housewares, and a whole range of household and office products that screamed “Design is the future!” I may not have been the most appreciative audience then, but fifty years on each D|R product I spot becomes an object of intense retro desire—and they still say “the future” in a good way, at least to me. And I wake up each day to a clock radio designed by the legendary Henry Kloss—another manifestation of Boston’s undeniable legacy to the world of quality audio-plus-design.

The stirrings of educational revolution are to be heard increasingly clearly in the land, but this revolution is not just about teaching and learning but about the culture, the environment, and even the aesthetics of education in its broadest and most provocative sense. It’s not Minutemen versus Redcoats any more, but visionaries and courageous thinkers and leaders taking on a status quo on whose obsolescence we are coming to consensus. Whether your own design aesthetic tends to Richardson or Gehry, Revere or Aalto, you appreciate the imperative to take intentional steps forward, away from group-think and toward a more beautiful and human-centered future.

See you in Boston—the countdown continues!

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