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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

February 2007 Issue

BLACK AND WHITE AND ARGUED OVER
Zebra crosswalk motif infuriates (or delights) users.

By Marty Carlock

BLACK AND WHITE AND ARGUED OVER Toshihiro Katayama

For safety reasons, in the late 1990s the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, decided to redesign the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, a major traffic artery, and Somerville Avenue. The junction, one subway stop north of Harvard Square, is called Porter Square. The city had plans to create a small plaza there, 10,000 square feet in all, mostly using space carved out by reconfiguring the roadway and existing sidewalk.

The city hired a landscape architect, Cynthia Smith, ASLA, of Halvorson Design Partnership in Boston. Locals looked forward to the usual amenities that come with new urban public spaces: grass, trees, benches, maybe fountains.

They should have known better. Cambridge is the last municipality in the state to retain a One Percent for Art law, requiring that public works set aside 1 percent of the total expenditure for aesthetic amelioration. Overseeing One Percent projects is the Cambridge Arts Council (CAC), a civic body famed for its fondness for what is new and different. And with this project, officially named Shapiro Family Plaza, those adjectives do apply. Artist Toshihiro Katayama, who likes his public projects to grow out of their site, “grew” his art here out of the ordinary designs painted for signage in the street.

When he looked at the plans, the artist “saw car access divided the plaza into three islands” and thought, “How can I connect all these islands?” The answer came when he went to the site and saw the pedestrian safety stripes. “This element is so strong, I simply used this pattern as the main concept for all three islands,” he says. Thus the islands are paved in black-and-white stripes. The stripes are produced with large-scale paving blocks made of concrete aggregate in white and dark gray.

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