The Boswash Shareway and the Evolving American Dream - Design Bureau

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The Boswash Shareway and the Evolving American Dream

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

By J. Michael Welton
Renderings courtesy of Höweler + Yoon Architecture

F. Scott Fitzgerald may have declared it an illusion in The Great Gatsby, but the American Dream is alive, well, and simply evolving, says architect Eric Höweler of Boston’s Höweler + Yoon Architecture. “It’s not a revolution but a slow, natural evolution,” he says. “It’s about what it means to be a family, an American, and a community.”

I talked to Höweler about the evolving American Dream after his relatively small firm won the prestigious Audi Urban Future Award last October, handily trumping others from Istanbul, Mumbai, São Paolo, and China’s Pearl River Valley. The 2012 award was one of four components in the Audi Urban Future Initiative, and focused on specific mobility scenarios in five metropolitan regions. Höweler + Yoon’s winning entry overcame a sensitive set of bottom-up solutions from four other firms keenly aware that traffic around the world is simply not moving.

Along with partner Meejin Yoon, Höweler chose to address the 400-mile stretch of I-95 that connects Boston and Washington, a highway corridor so jam-packed with traffic that it’s probably the most cursed interstate in the nation. They call this stretch Boswash, and their solution the Boswash Shareway. Höweler and Yoon built Shareway around the idea that Americans enjoy being part of groups of people, places, and ideas that are constantly changing.

“The idea that Americans are so individualistic that they can’t form an affinity group is a fallacy,” he says. “Social networks are made up of flexible, agile collectors.” Shareway capitalizes on this agility by reimagining I-95’s physical structure. It suggests that both commuter and commercial rail traffic be bundled in tubes in the airspace above I-95. Cars, bikes, and pedestrians would be bundled similarly, and gas and water lines would also follow along the highway. Expanding on this idea of collective ownership, the plan also boldly proposes that battery-powered automobiles be shared among many people. It frames

housing from the position, too, stating that homes in the suburbs could easily be owned by multiple entities. Along with addressing traffic, Shareway’s bigger ambitions challenge the notions of American individuality and private property with a new vision for shared space. “The man-woman-two-kids-one-dog family might have been one version of the American Dream, but that’s evolved,” Höweler says. “We’re arguing for more diversity in how the American Dream manifests itself. We wanted some sort of corrective vision that could happen in the U.S.” Still, it’s not an easy idea to swallow for all Americans, especially in a country that equates individual ownership with social success.

“That’s what the jury had the hardest time with,” Höweler says. “The idea of having your own house and your own car, people aren’t going to give that up easily. But a shared house doesn’t have to go to the bank, so shared is not incompatible with the American Dream. In fact, there’s more freedom—this is more choice.”

A persuasive Höweler envisions a transition to the Shareway plan over generations, looking toward a highly mobile society where individuals might live in one house one day, and in another the next. “My students don’t want to own anything, much less a house,” he says, referring to his architecture students studying at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “They want to be mobile enough to accept a job in Austin.” This generational solution, particularly for shared cars and homes, is based on current trends. It’s also representative of Audi’s aims for the competition, as the car company is currently extrapolating and forecasting for mobility through 2030. “That’s what architects do, too,” Höweler adds, commenting on Audi’s work toward a long-term mobility vision. “It’s an anticipatory discipline. It’s not science fiction—it’s grounded in what’s happening today.”

The award came with €100,000 prize for the architects, and Audi will also provide €200,000 to get the Boswash project underway. It’s not huge, but it’s a start. And it should come as no surprise that Höweler has ideas for next steps that he can implement now. “One of the things we visualize is to promote switching at a smaller scale, with electric power for car share,” he says. “We’re working on a project with the commissioner of transportation in Boston, and I think we can pull them aside and say, ‘Hey, here’s a cool idea. Would you be open to discussing this for Boston?’”

Fitzgerald notwithstanding, Höweler’s brand of optimism is one of the drivers that’s turned the American Dream into a reality.