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Beyond The Big Dig

Venting anger

S. Boston residents air complaints about structures

By Raphael Lewis, Globe Staff, 5/7/2002

For more than a decade, the Big Dig has torn through Boston's bowels like a massive municipal bellyache: The pain's been intense, but except for the sleek Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, there's little visible evidence of the $14.6 billion project.

That's all begun to change, now that five ventilation buildings have started casting their gargantuan, spiky silhouettes on Boston's skyline, all along the Central Artery's corridor.

But rather than embrace the additions to the city scape, many who face the buildings, especially those in South Boston, are now saying they liked the Big Dig a lot more when it was underground.

"I think they're startling and really intrusive, and they don't seem to be of the quality elsewhere on the Big Dig," said Valerie Burns, a South Boston resident and president the Boston Natural Areas Network, a nonprofit that works on open and green spaces. "How can something that huge and importantly placed slip through? I hate to say it, they look like a mistake."

More like overgrown utility closets than buildings, the ventilation structures fulfill one essential purpose: providing power and fresh air to nearly 4 miles of underground roadway. Costing tens of millions of dollars each, the vent buildings, together with the ducts in the tunnels, make up the world's largest such system.

But although the vents perform the same function, they will not look the same.

The vent buildings under construction downtown are being masked by parking lots or hotels. But South Boston residents have been shocked by Vent Building 5, an 18-story, monolithic concrete box rising above the waterfront district on Summer Street that has none of the artful cover of its downtown siblings. Even worse, it sits a stone's throw from the unfinished Convention Center, where visitors will get their first impression of Boston, and hard by the Fort Point Channel artists' community, which knows something about aesthetics.

"What comes to mind? A nuclear power plant?" said Becky Dwyer, a resident of the 249 A Street artists co-op and former vice president of the Fort Point Arts Community, peering out her window at Vent Building 5. "It's huge, way out of scale, but it's just grey cement, and it seems to me that they could have done something more interesting."

If she turns her head, she sees Vent Building 1, another mass of concrete across the Channel.

When finished, Artery officials say, the two buildings will not be quite as imposing and barren as their unfinished hulks would suggest. Interchanging stripes of gray and beige bricks will run horizontally along the width of VB5, they say. VB1 will have a similar scheme.

But when it comes to aesthetic enhancements, that's about it, officials acknowledge. Between VB5 and VB1, project officials stripped $2.5 million worth of fineries like stainless-steel caps for the stacks, and custom-built air louvers, during a cost-cutting exercise a few years ago.

By comparison, no such cuts occurred at the vent building rising at 500 Atlantic Ave. in the Financial District. Except for an array of air intake louvers that will sit about 50 feet off the ground in an alley, Vent Building 3 will remain invisible. This was possible because the Big Dig's engineers were able to bury most of the structure, beside the Artery tunnel.

The property's owner, NStar, announced earlier this year that a 20-story glass-and-limestone building will occupy the site, housing a parking garage on the lowest level, a tony Hotel Intercontinental in the middle, and 130 luxury condominiums on the top. The chimneys will be encased in glass boxes on the roof.

"Because this site is so crucial, it was paramount to hide the ventilation system," said NStar spokesman Brian Fallon, who said the hotel is the result of 12 years of planning with the Big Dig. "That was our objective from the beginning."

Also well-hidden will be Vent Building 4 in nearby Haymarket, which will only show its stacks. A brick-and-granite faced parking garage will encase the rest of the utilitarian structure.

Aware of the budgetary disparity, those in South Boston are angry that they were never informed of the cost cuts to the buildings in their area.

Even some of the buildings' designers have said the cuts have rendered once-elegant creations monstrosities. Hubert Murray, former chief architect with Wallace Floyd, which did much of the vent building design work, said his firm sought inspiration in Rome's famous Trevi Fountain for the design of VB5: raw, organic material at the base, tapering to a triumphant stylized acme capped in stainless steel.

That steel, he said, was largely responsible for the critical acclaim heaped upon Vent Building 7, which shimmers at sunrise and sunset in East Boston, where it ventilates the Ted Williams Tunnel. That building, along with one near the FleetBank pavilion in South Boston, have been operating since 1995.

Murray says the project's managers, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, "stripped the assets" from VB5 and VB1 because "they're in the business of building nuclear power plants and airports, and not architecture in the midst of humanity."

Matthew Amorello, chairman of the Turnpike Authority (which oversees the Big Dig), said he is willing to revisit the vent building issue with an eye toward dressing them up in a way that would please locals.

Last week, Amorello named Fred Yalouris, director of architecture and design for the Central Artery project, to head a task force to look into the issue.

Others from the community and advocacy groups will be named shortly.

"We're very proud of the vent buildings," Yalouris said. "We spared no expense on the design and materials for these buildings, and we feel that shows. Right now, people are reacting to the large concrete blocks out there. We're asking for people to wait until they're done before they make up their minds."

Michael Lewis, the Big Dig's project director, said VB5 seems worse than it is because it's taken shape before the rest of the neighborhood. In years to come, he pointed out, parcels on three sides of the building, owned by Massport, NStar, and developer Frank McCourt, are probably going to be the sites of large hotels, which would go a long way toward hiding VB5.

Boston is not alone in confronting the aesthetic challenge posed by ventilation buildings.

The ventilation building for New York's Holland Tunnel rises 12 stories, obscuring a good piece of the Hudson Riverscape. But the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey began lighting the windowless brick facade recently, to rave reviews. And last year, a group of artists took an even more radical tack, projecting a film onto the building for a week straight.

Amorello said he is considering similarly creative responses, such as lighting arrays, murals, or hanging giant scrims similar to the one that covered the State House during its recent renovations.

Dwyer suggested that the Bulgarian artist Christo wrap up the vent buildings, as he's done to skyscrapers in other cities. Others have suggested vines and botanicals at various points on the buildings' facades. Others still have pinpointed the structures as the ideal location for another whale mural by Wyland, whose work already graces a wall by the Southeast Expressway.

Murray, who appreciates the renewed interest in his buildings, is not enamored with that last idea: "If I saw whales crawling up and down one of these things, I would throw in the cards and slit my wrists."

Raphael Lewis can be reached at rlewis@globe.com.

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