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Contest aims to enliven public spaces in Boston

A 55-by-41-foot mural would transform the ceiling of City Hall into a bright blue sky.

city of boston

A 55-by-41-foot mural would transform the ceiling of City Hall into a bright blue sky.

A book-lending kiosk for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. Street furniture that doubles as a playground slide. A giant vibraphone on Fort Point Channel. And a 55-by-41-foot mural to transform the ceiling of City Hall into a bright blue sky.

These are among the winning ideas from the first Public Space Invitational in Boston, a contest for engineers, designers, architects, and other creative minds to enliven public spaces around the city.

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Boston received 72 entrees in the contest and on Wednesday evening at a City Hall ceremony named nine winners in three categories: The Streetscape, City Hall, and Random Awesome Design, or RAD. Each is slated to receive the money necessary to transform their concepts into reality over the next year.

The invitational was a way for Boston to experiment with public design, art, and architecture without breaking the bank or taking as long as city bureaucrats typically do to roll out public works, said Kris Carter of the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which oversaw the contest.

“This is an example of a new way of doing planning,” said Carter. “We are testing things before we get into a really long planning process.”

The challenge for the entrants was to keep their proposals modest enough to be done for under $4,500. Now, those winners will meet with City Hall planners to figure out how to install their projects within budget.

At least one has received a commitment for private financing. The reading kiosk, called The Uni Project, will be funded by the staffing agency Robert Half.

‘This competition is a celebration of the city’s immense talent.'

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The firm will pay $4,000 to fund a rolling book shelf, stools, and a staff that can transform part of the Greenway into an outdoor library.

“Hopefully our sponsorship will cause other companies to step forward and do the same,” said Bill Driscoll, district president for the firm’s Boston office.

Among the other winners is a plan to add new street furniture along Huntington Avenue near Brigham Circle; another to remake those gray utility boxes that dot city sidewalks and hold electric controls for street lights into useful city benches; and a series of musical pipes on Fort Point Channel that create melodies based on tidal movements.

While the contest put an emphasis on public streets, the city also sought ideas to spruce up City Hall, long maligned as one of the ugliest buildings in Boston.

“It’s one of our great civic spaces,” said Carter of the New Urban Mechanics department. But, he said, “if you’ve ever been in City Hall, you know it’s not a very warm and welcoming place.”

Two winning entrees propose simple additions to change the building’s cavernous lobby. One would put a giant photograph of the sky onto the building’s ceiling, creating the feeling of an open rooftop. Another uses simple nonstick tape to add color to the building’s large interior staircase.

Many other cities have undertaken similar initiatives to make public spaces more inviting for public gatherings and community uses, said Kent Larson, director of the Changing Places group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. However modest, Larson said, such projects also push cities to be more innovative.

“The same interventions that lead to innovation cities are exactly the same ones that lead to a more sustainable city,” said Larson.

Last year, a group from MIT placed several solar-powered seats around the Greenway where passersby could recharge their smartphones. The seats were such a hit that the creators have since formed a startup, Changing Environments Inc., to manufacture solar-powered benches that are expected to be installed around Boston in the next month.

With the Public Space Invitational, the city hoped to bring that same kind of innovation and creativity to other parts of the city.

“Boston has a vibrant art, design, and creative community,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “This competition is a celebration of the city’s immense talent, and the creative community’s interest in improving our city.”

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMBFarrell.
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