URI landscape architect graduate among four winners for redesign of Boston bridge

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Robert Barella, a 2014 URI graduate, who was one of four winners of a contest to redesign the Northern Avenue Bridge in Boston. Photo by Allison Desbonnet.

KINGSTON, R.I., June 1, 2016—The Northern Avenue Bridge in Boston’s Fort Point Channel is a deteriorating hulk of steel closed two years ago because of safety concerns.

Now a University of Rhode Island landscape architect graduate wants to bring the bridge back to life by turning it into a park with live performances and floating islands.

Robert Barella, a 2014 graduate of URI and landscape architect for the Boston-based Kyle Zick Landscape Architecture, is among the four winners of the Northern Avenue Bridge Ideas

“It’s a real honor to win this award,” says Barella, 24, a Newport native who now lives in Cambridge, Mass. “I’m fresh out of school and was competing against professional teams of engineers and architects.”

Many of the proposals were unusual—a “vertical farm” and Ferris wheel were two suggestions—but Barella’s design was probably one of the more ambitious projects.

His plan calls for a park with terraces to the water’s edge, floating islands, stages for performances, a museum, and paths for pedestrians and bicyclists. Cars would not be allowed.

winning design entry rendering
Robert Barella’s winning design of The Northern Avenue Bridge in Boston’s Fort Point Channel.

“I wanted to explore the potential for the bridge—and the entire space,” he says. “It’s such an iconic structure.”

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the Boston Society of Architects launched the contest in late March. Barella and the three other winners—selected by a 16-member panel of designers, artists and architects—were announced on May 25.

“The project is getting a lot of good press,” says Barella. “It’s the first competition of this scale that I’ve been a part of. It’s exciting.”

Barella spent about a month on his design. His main goal, he says, was to save the bridge, which he calls an “architectural marvel.”

Opened in 1908, the bridge is a steel three-span, triple-barreled truss bridge that, in its heyday, could open so ships could pass through to Boston’s thriving industrial harbor.

For decades, the structure connected pedestrians, cyclists, cars and trains to the South Boston Waterfront. The bridge was closed to cars in 1997 and to pedestrians in 2014 after concerns were raised about its structural integrity.

Saying they feel disconnected from downtown Boston and the waterfront, residents in the area have been pushing for years to get the bridge reopened, even if just for pedestrians.

Barella says he jumped at the opportunity to submit a design when he heard about the contest. “There weren’t many guidelines and rules. It was just about flights of fantasy.”

He proposes restoring and raising the bridge to allow boats to pass through. He also wants to keep the span that rotates open, although it would have to be repaired.

“That span is the most interesting part of the bridge,” he says. “It’s a fascinating thing to watch in action and definitely worth preserving.”

His design also includes terraces extending from the bridge where people can gather; floating islands accessible to boaters; and a re-purposed rail car that honors the bridge’s history.

“My bridge design reflects everything I learned at URI.”

City officials are expected to review the four winners’ ideas, get input from residents and possibly seek bids for a final design. Barella says he would happily submit a more formal plan.

“It’s been a great experience so far,” he says. “Right now, they’re taking all these ideas and collecting them and figuring out how to move forward.”

At URI, he worked intensely on projects involving waterways, coastal issues and community parks, which provided him with the skills to tackle the bridge design, he says. He was especially appreciative of his senior design studio class taught by Richard Sheridan.

“Studying at URI gave me an understanding of our coastal issues and how they relate to cities,” he says. “I also learned about the importance of preserving historic structures and protecting the environment. My bridge design reflects everything I learned at URI.”

William A. Green, chair of URI’s Landscape Architecture Department, says Barella’s win is well-deserved.

“Rob’s selection as a winner of the Northern Avenue Bridge competition comes as no surprise to us at URI, except perhaps for the short time it has taken him to be recognized,” says Green. “As a student he was always pushing to learn new applications and test himself through internships, jobs and competitions. We are extremely proud of him.”