Opinion

Renée Loth

New app makes Boston a ‘museum without walls’

LINCOLN AGNEW FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

You think you know Boston? Did you know that a memorial to Kahlil Gibran, author of every college coed’s guide to life, “The Prophet,” is on Dartmouth Street? That the first pastor of Trinity Church, Phillips Brooks, wrote the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem?” That Northeastern University started as an offshoot of the YMCA? That the Federal Reserve building in Dewey Square was built with those giant brushed aluminum louvers because sunlight streaming through the building’s east-west orientation would otherwise have blinded people working inside?

All of these tantalizing details about the city where we live and work, and hundreds more, can be found on a new smartphone app called CultureNOW. Boston is the second city — after New York, where the nonprofit creators are based — to be mapped with walking tours, photos, and podcasts of some 400 buildings, parks and works of public art. From the sublime (the Hancock tower) to the insouciant (the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture), the sites and their explanations slowly accumulate into what CultureNOW calls a “museum without walls.” And the $1.99 price of the app compares nicely to admission in most of the city’s physical museums.

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The Boston app debuted in August with the help of four students in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. It is divided into five thematic tours — land, renewal, innovation, conservation, and campus — but it can also find your current location and tell you which sites are close by. “It’s a way to make the goals of architecture and of space transparent to the public,” said Josh Schecter, one of the students.

The goosebump moments come with the podcasts, when the disembodied voice of an artist or architect gives new meaning to places you may have walked past hundreds of times. Paradoxically, a mobile device — notorious for distracting users from their environments — can become a vehicle for new ways of seeing. We need only look up.

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Some weeks ago I attended an event at the Boston Society of Architects (where I also work, editing the BSA’s quarterly magazine) to launch the Boston app. The evening featured a Pecha Kucha — a tradition best described as a poetry slam for architects. Fourteen builders and designers were given three minutes each to present up to 10 slides describing various sites on the app, from a fabric and light installation using scaffolding at an Emerson college dorm to the groundbreaking Design Research Building (now housing the chain store Anthropologie) in Harvard Square.

Curiosity about such places animates Schecter, who moved to Boston from Chicago, a great architecture city, last year. Boston suffers from something of an identity crisis when it comes to its civic aesthetic; there’s lots of hand-wringing about Brahmin stuffiness and over-reliance on brick. But Schecter says that working on the app gave him an appreciation for Boston’s visual diversity. “There’s a really interesting gradient between the preservation mindset and the modernist presence in Boston,” he said. By contrast, he said, Chicago was built largely in two periods, at the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th. Its oldest building dates to 1836.

For all its delights, the new app is a work in progress. Coverage is spotty. Sometimes a site in Rhode Island will pop up on a Boston tour, or the whole works will inexplicably shut down. The related CultureNOW website is better, but more designers and historians need to record podcasts. And the app needs to expand its notion of “Boston” beyond the usual precincts of Back Bay and Cambridge and venture more deeply into the neighborhoods. But the project already has helped demystify what architects like to call “the built environment” around us.

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In 1975, ages before smart phones or even cell phones, the architecture firm Cambridge Seven designed a multimedia show called “Where’s Boston.” Quaint today in its rudimentary technology — 40 projectors! eight screens! — the show was a huge draw for tourists and residents alike. It was a time, amid Bicentennial celebrations, when Quincy Market opened and First Night began. Boston was regaining respect for its civic, historic, and repurposed spaces. Perhaps, 40 years on, another public-spirited technology can ignite a new era of discovery and pride.

Renee Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
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