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2018 MCHAP

Downtown Crossing Amphitheater and Plaza

Howeler + Yoon Architecture

Boston, MA, USA

November 2016


Höweler + Yoon Architecture


Richard Burck Associates, Inc. (Landscape Architect) Suffolk Construction (Construction Manager) Nitsch Engineering (Civil Engineer) Desimone Consulting Engineers (Structural Engineer) Commercial Construction Consulting Inc. (CODE/LEED Consultant)


Millenium Partners Boston


John Horner


At the scale of the city, the design objective was to reinstate the site as a critical destination among a network of small-scale public spaces in the downtown district. The project aimed to be a cornerstone within Boston’s larger effort to revitalize the downtown area into a high-end, mixed-use neighborhood. Early design meetings with local interest groups and city officials confirmed pedestrians are the primary user of the space and generator of program. The organization of the plaza needed to respond to both existing and projected pedestrian circulation paths while extending the flush paving across Franklin and Washington Streets to create an expanded pedestrian space on the north side of the residential tower that prioritizes pedestrian accessibility. Franklin Street continues through the plaza and is limited to taxi and delivery vehicles. Phase one consisting of the sloping triangular Plaza, required the incorporation of an existing subway entrance and Porte Cochere. Phase two of the project asked for the plaza design to continue one block east.


Downtown Crossing and Washington Street form Boston’s historic shopping district and pedestrian mall anchored by Filene’s and Jordan Marsh department stores. The Filene’s Department Store, designed by Daniel Burnham, occupied the corner of Washington Street and Summer Street, forming a major crossroads of retail activity in the heart of Boston. In 2008 the economic recession brought construction to a halt nationwide, and Downtown Crossing suffered from large sections sitting vacant, and a large empty pit on the corner of Washington and Franklin Street. Following years of stalled development, the Filene’s site re-opened with Millennium Tower as a new residential and commercial center. Now the completed Millennium Tower in Boston’s Downtown Crossing anchors the neighborhood with a 600-foot residential tower, new commercial spaces, and new pedestrian-oriented public spaces. The new residents and retail stores have transformed the neighborhood into an active 24-hour city. Locals and tourists walk up and down Washington Street and many gather on the new amphitheater built over the Downtown Crossing subway entrance.


“The Steps,” as they are known to locals, have become a new type of public space in the city: a stage for live music performances, a popular lunch time gathering place, and a perch from which people watch the daily “theater” of urban life. The new amphitheater was constructed over one of the busiest subway entrances in the city. The design team opted for a pre-cast construction system to minimize the disruption of operations to the subway entrance. This method enabled the concrete portion of the structure to be erected in just a few days. The pre-cast planks were custom-mixed to match the color pallet of the surrounding landscape pavers. Each slat consists of the horizontal “tread” and the vertical “riser” portion which acts as an upturned beam to create the sectional depth needed to span. This structural technique eliminates vertical joints and encourages drainage. The subway entrance under the amphitheater is infilled with a glass store front system, drawing connections to its surroundings. The plaza paver design creates a graphic pattern that traces the anticipated uses. Red pavers signify pedestrian activities while black and dark grey pavers are mixed in at the residential turnaround where vehicles are expected. Most importantly the plaza design blurs the lines between pedestrian and vehicular zones by replacing curbs with bollards, extending foot traffic areas from building face to building face. This “shared surface” for “traffic calming” pioneers a model of public space design that eliminates curbs in a counterintuitive approach that reduces driver speeds and improves traffic safety.

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