11.016J | Spring 2015 | Undergraduate

The Once and Future City


Assignment 1: Select A Site

Project Assignment 1: Select A Site

In 2016, MIT will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of its move from Boston’s Back Bay to the current location in Cambridge. To honor that occasion, this year the class will focus on MIT’s former and current neighborhoods, so you should select a site within the designated boundaries in Cambridge or the Back Bay. The site should be between four and eight blocks. Ideally, it should include more than one type of land use. And it should be a place that intrigues you. Reflect on why it interests you, why you are drawn to it. What questions does the place raise, for which you hope to find answers this semester?

Generally, the more diversity your site has, the more interesting its development over time is likely to be. This is not a hard and fast rule. If you pick a site in downtown Boston, for example, the uses may be all commercial, but the development over time will still be very interesting.

A land use means a type of use, for example residential (single family homes, apartments), commercial (stores, offices, movie theaters), industrial, institutional (schools, hospitals, churches, post office), recreation (park, playground, golf course). Two different land uses could mean two different kinds of the same use (single family homes and apartments) or it could mean two different kinds of use altogether (residential and commercial).

Boundary Maps for reference:

MIT Neighborhood, 1866–1916 (PDF - 4.5MB)

MIT Neighborhood, 1916-present (PDF - 4MB)

Where do you start?

The first step in this assignment is very distinct: Find a place that intrigues you and raises questions that interest you. In effect, you are choosing your primary text for your written and graphic work, and it should sustain analysis over the course of the semester. This is a central element of the assignment because of what it asks you to do once you get to the site.

This year, you must choose a site that is either in the neighborhood of MIT’s original location in Boston’s Back Bay or in the neighborhood of MIT’s current location. Your site must be within the boundaries designated on the enclosed maps.

What is this assignment asking for?

This assignment is asking you to “close read” your site. Close reading is what it sounds like: Reading a text closely. It’s a frequent form of writing in the arts and humanities. If you’ve ever analyzed a poem, a piece of music, or a historical document, you’ve done this before. Close readings pay attention to details and specifics in the text in order to explain why it is constructed the way it is, or what it might “mean.” The need for careful specificity is the reason why this paper should be about 2–2.5 pages in length (600 words).

Why must the site be 4–8 blocks in size?

A site that contains more than four square blocks (i.e. two blocks on a side) and at most eight blocks should provide enough variety and scope for your explorations in close reading without overwhelming you with detail. If the site is too small, you may not find enough to write about. If the site is larger than eight blocks, there may be far too much to see and absorb in the attention to detail entailed in close reading.

Should this paper have a thesis? If so, what would a good thesis look like?

One of the key elements of close reading is selection. You have good reasons for choosing your particular site, so use those reasons to animate this paper. Use these reasons to justify your choice. The site you choose and where you draw its boundaries is your topic, the text you will analyze and explain. A good choice will generate a set of interesting questions, which will provide a purpose and framework for your observations.

Read Grady Clay’s “How to Read a City”. Consider his writing as a possible “how to” or guide to asking the right kinds of questions about your site. Keep in mind that you’ll have ideas about how to look from reading Clay before and as you choose your site, and again, once you have chosen it.

What does it mean to be intrigued by a site and to ask questions of the site?

While you might be accustomed to the idea of reading a set of data, or a literary text, or a historical document, in this assignment you are reading a physical place. Whether numbers, music, or architecture, texts can all present puzzles: They are not as they seem after closer scrutiny, details on consideration are anomalous, what seems at first singular or monolithic is actually made of layers or is heterogeneous. These kinds of elements of any text surface after multiple readings. Consider visiting your site several times, at different times of day. As you’ve been doing in class, you will want to ask yourself about:

  • The visible land uses in the site
  • The sense of pattern in the place, as you experience it
  • The sense of pattern in the place from aerial views (Google or other photographs)
  • Details which are common on the site, or are anomalies

How do I collect evidence for this assignment?

It might help to think of yourself as making field notes and consider the role of the camera and the notebook to make initial observations the way you would annotate a printed text.

  • In class, we’ve already seen the benefit of photographs. Consider photographing the elements of the site that intrigue you, so that you have detailed material to write from.
  • Walk your site, and find a place to sit and watch what happens there. What you don’t see is as important as what you do see. Take notes—make journal entries—on both.
  • Consider different ways of taking notes: It can sometimes be helpful to write lists, sets of questions and answers or theories, or to write longer, narrative descriptions.
  • Make note of the vantage points from where you see what you see so you can use that information later to orient the reader (“walking west” “standing in front of Trinity Church”)

How do I organize my observations?

  • Can you organize your observations around certain questions about the site? Do some observations raise questions and others answer them?
  • What patterns, details, surprises do you find? What is there? What isn’t there?
  • Re-read Grady Clay, this time looking for the way his ideas apply to your site. Consider if a particular concept or way of reading helps you make sense of the details you’ve accumulated

Where does all of this go in my paper?

For this paper, you will want to present the following information:

  • Description of and justification for your site: Where is your site? What are its boundaries, and why did you choose those boundaries? What elements of the site make it a compelling site to study? The answer to these questions will form the thesis of your paper, so you’ll want to set it up early.
  • What are the land uses of your site and why are they significant? Be specific here, noting street intersections, detailed descriptions of buildings and land use.
  • Observe and describe the key compelling aspects of the site: In this part of the paper you will need to filter, select, or curate the qualities and details that you’ve observed so far in order to explain why your site is significant and worth studying. You will need to group or organize what you’ve observed and focus your writing on what excites your curiosity about the site. What is significant about these details? Be specific here, in terms of anchoring your observations to specific streets, buildings, patterns, or contrasts.
  • Use terms and insights from Grady Clay to help you frame what is revealing and significant about your site.

Final Preparation

  • 600 words in length
  • Double-spaced in 12-point font
  • Include a map of the location of your site with the boundaries marked. Remember to cite fully the source of the map.
  • Remember to cite the required reading in your paper.
  • Post your text and map on your Once and Future City website.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2015
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Written Assignments with Examples
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