Take the names: buildings, roads, parks and bridges, all named after prominent soldiers or civic figures. Take the bronze statues of notable Bostonian athletes and sportsmen through the ages. Take the taxi driver who told me with pride how Eisenhower had the foresight to build the Interstate here, to carve a modern infrastructure into the community.
I start my day meeting a friend. Except that, in the Social Age, friendship is complex: we’ve never met before, except through Twitter and forums, yet somehow we know what each other stands for and we know the conversation will be good. Which it is: over coffee by the canal we watch kayakers take to the water and discuss culture and communities, our histories and future. Wide ranging, curious, shared stories.
The curiosity fits the space, because within a stones throw is the Microsoft building. And the Google one. And, i think, Yahoo, who seem to persist, though doing what i’m not quite sure. Curious technologists carving out a new Age.
I walk to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: it’s odd, but i hadn’t realised it was so close. A pilgrimage of sorts i guess, though to find what, i’m not sure. The reassuring bulk of greek colonnaded architecture giving things a suitable gravitas i guess.
Next to it, the sixties architecture of the enticingly named High Voltage Research Lab, which i skirt past rapidly, half hoping for sparks. It disappoints. Just a dusty and seemingly deserted building by the rail tracks.
There’s a pride in the bearing of the students as they filter in and out: this is a prestigious space and it shows, as people have their photo taken by the sign. I head to the MIT Museum.
In what i can only assume is a self parody, the gallery starts it’s celebration of MIT pride by showcasing elements of the Polaroid collection, which they recently acquired. The irony of this redundant technology, swept away by it’s unwillingness to adapt, to recognise it’s crumbling foundations, symbol, totem of apathy and failure. Perhaps i’m unduly harsh, but this once mighty scientific-industrial behemoth lies tattered: relegated to an App on my smartphone. Technology, it turns out, has a sell by date.
My favourite gallery by far is the one of abstract mechanical sculptures, forged of iron and wire, each of which is delicately animated. Cogs and chains turn, causing impossibly spindly contraptions to lurch into life. On several, a leaf or piece of wood is precariously bought to life by the mechanism, walking and dancing. It’s entrancing. Art and engineering: that’s maybe what validates the Polaroid story, the way the technology facilitated and democratised the art.
Later i wait patiently behind two teenagers, wanting to have a go on a water tank that lets you visualise sound waves. I think. I never get to find out, because they’re too busy hogging the seat, whilst updating Facebook, talking about boys. And i’m too English to tell them to shove off.
The pride in the Museum is understated: the robotics and holographic sections have a certain confidence about them, but overall it’s more quaintly charming than cutting edge. I’m surprised nobody has sponsored the hell out of it yet.
I walk back to the river, where, on the bridge, i find numbers painted, marking the ten metre marks (except where they joyfully sometimes mark the 81m or 69m gap with a wild abandon of structure). They are, i assume, for runners to track their progress, running being a popular pastime here. And running being a reminder of just why Boston is Strong. The bombing of the marathon here, which i’d seen on television, is more starkly real as i stand beside the lycra. Communication technology collapses distances, but there’s still something more inherently real about being ‘here’. In actual person.
I stumble across a confident shopping street, all boutiques and cafes amidst the brownstone tenements. Proof that global commerce endures: it’s charming but ultimately it’s the independent shops that give it character. I sit for lunch on a terrace, in a shady spot, surrounded by flowers, looking over the gently bustling space. I take my phone out to capture the moment, but realise the atmosphere is elusive, and a snapshot of a table and chairs won’t do it. So i go old school and rely instead on my memory.
Narrative fascinates me: the ways we chart our story, over time. The ways we build our collections of objects, photos and friendships that reflect and capture the shadow of encounters and adventures long gone. I found my friend Louise like this: both lost in Shanghai, a shared story that started by accident and persists over time. Cities capture their narrative in their architecture, in their street furniture, in their parks and tramways. Delineated by coastlines and hills, valleys and mountains, they fill the space with a constantly evolving story, each part contributing to the whole.
City Hall is monstrous: brutalist architecture of the first order. It reminds me of the signs you still see in New York alleyways, up high, faded and battered, pointing you to the nearest nuclear shelter. It’s all angles and towering struts: seeking to dominate through mass and texture. Concrete itself, once symbolic of hope and post war optimism now reeks of misplaced urban renewal schemes and mass production at the cost of heart.
Strong does not meant to dominate: architecture does not gain it’s strength through density alone. Truly great buildings reference nature, they don’t deny or occlude it. They are grounded in their heritage, even if they gain notoriety through challenging or being contrary towards it. The strength of Boston Strong comes because of it’s story, not despite it.
I feel the impending sense of dislocation as the final hours before my flight close in: a mental uncoupling from this reality, in preparation for the return to my own. To have any value, travel must be circuitous: both in terms of how we explore by wandering, but also through the sense of returning home, to codify and capture the experience into our story, and to share that story once it is done.