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Our Next Great Public Spaces Might Float

An MIT Architecture student imagines an existing bridge as the anchor for floating public spaces.

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Completed in 1891, the Harvard Bridge connects Cambridge to the city of Boston with 2,164 feet of steel and concrete extended over the Charles River. MIT's campus sits on the northern side of the bridge, while Boston proper sits at the southern side.

Accessible by car, bike, or on foot, the bridge is the city's most crowded spot for pedestrians, according to a 2011 study by Halvorson Design Partnership. Yet architect Suk Lee, currently a junior architect for Steven Holl, thinks it could be a lot more than a thoroughfare.

For his MIT Architecture thesis project, Lee envisions the bridge as an anchor for a floating technology hub that includes a pavilion, open-air spaces, and a sunken area for events. Accessible to any pedestrians crossing the bridge, his so-called MIT i2 would create a public annexed campus that brings MIT resources to the rest of the city.

In Lee's design, the bridge is flanked by a floating pavilion and a cluster of "Floating Islands." The pavilion is constructed from light steel frames atop a structure made from EPS foam that floats on the river.

This floating architecture becomes a shared space for MIT and the other citizens of Boston: within the pavilion, movable partition walls can be used to divide up the space for private meetings or studying, or be slid aside to open up a large event space. On the opposite side, an open-air, partially sunken structure provides an outdoor public space. Underneath the bridge, Lee designed a concrete sunken platform that fits between the foundation structures and provides a naturally dark space for multimedia events. The sunken platform also extends out from under the bridge, providing a somewhat labyrinthine lower level space for events and programming that pedestrians on the bridge can look out onto.

The concept transforms Harvard Bridge from a piece of infrastructure that gets people from point A to point B into a destination in and of itself. As Lee notes in his thesis paper, Kendall Square, an area just off the MIT campus in Cambridge, has become an important technological hub in the city; according to MIT Technology Review, in 2013 the area had the densest concentration of startups in the world. Lee's bridge would connect Cambridge and Kendall Square to the rest of the city in a literal and cultural way, through shared public space.

As space in cities becomes more limited and sea levels rise, more architects are turning to floating structures as a way to rethink the use of existing space (Co.Design has written about a couple of recent projects here and here). Lee's project expands on these ideas, and creates another use for existing infrastructure. Bridges, he proposes, can be used not just for transportation but also as foundations for multi-use floating structures.

Elevated parks a la The High Line have transformed a city's infrastructure into lush gardens floating over head. Perhaps it's time to turn our gaze to the river down below.

All Images: Suk Lee via MIT i² : Idea Incubator

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