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Dreams of Central Square: Prof. Ritsuko Taho Creates "Multicultural Manifestoes"

The children's book The BFG, by Roald Dahl, was about a Big Friendly Giant who collected dreams floating in the air and distributed them to all the sleeping children around the world.

Although she is not a giant, Assistant Professor of Architecture Ritsuko Taho is Cambridge's own dream catcher. For the next three months, she will be collecting the written dreams of the diverse communities of Central Square, which will be inscribed on scroll-like cylinders and permanently installed in the square.

The project, entitled "Multicultural Manifestoes," is part of the renovation of the new Carl Barron Plaza at the intersection of Massachusetts and Western Avenues. Taho won the commission for the project through the Cambridge Arts Council's Percent for Arts program. She has also won two awards from MIT to help fund the project: a $15,000 Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences award and $7,000 Council for the Arts award [see box].

For the next two months, Taho will collect dreams from boxes distributed throughout the Central Square business community, and through outreach to different citizen groups in the city. The actual physical construction will take place over the summer, with the final installation scheduled for fall.

"The philosophy that guided the selection of the artist was that a public artwork in this community should be accessible, inviting, and sensitive to the diversity of Central Square," said Carol Harper, chair of the Cambridge Arts Council.

"Central Square is a very special place in terms of diversity," Taho said. People of different cultures, education levels, and income live next to each other; businesses and residential areas are all mixed together.

Taho - who has created many public art installations and won awards in the Boston area, across America, and in her native Japan - is herself a resident of Central Square.

Originally, the Cambridge committee wanted an enclosed, intimate space, but Taho felt that would discourage people from stopping on their way through.

Central Square "treats you as a consumer all the time," Taho said. This gives the message, Buy what you came for and leave. "If people are allowed to spend some time [after shopping] then this space functions as a communication place."

The final design incorporates a certain informal, domestic quality expressed by relaxed almost-patterns in the brick work and in the layout of the benches and other elements. "People should be able to feel, This is my place,'" Taho said.

"I see the dreams as a means to collect their honest and personal voices and a means to transform negative experiences into positive," Taho said. "In a very humane sense, there are many common dreams."

Towers invoke global community

The hopes of Central Square will be presented on seven "dream towers" which are six to eight feet tall. Taho said she would place the unreachable dreams on the tallest towers, but then corrected herself: the dreams are "reachable, but difficult to touch."

Each cylindrical pillar has a base of brick, a middle section made of square glass panels, and six or twelve brass cylinders at the top depending on the size of the tower.

The glass panels, which will be lit at night from the inside, serve as both part of the safety improvements to that part of Central Square and to create a colorful effect. Each panel will have the word "dream" sandblasted onto it and filled in with color.

The actual dream statements, totaling several hundred, will be inscribed onto the brass cylinders. Artistic patterns associated with a specific culture will be painted on top of the dreams. And as the observer spins a cylinder, a bell will chime inside.

Finally, the brass cylinders will be covered by a protective coating. But Taho doesn't mind the unavoidable wear and tear on this interactive display. "The artwork won't have to be presented the same way all the time," she said.

Every aspect of the dream towers - the word "dream," the individual dreams, the culture of the chimes, the artistic patterns - is presented in its own language.

Taho took a lot of care in maintaining the authenticity of the different cultures represented. To keep the feeling of handwriting, she will convert the hand-drawn characters into digital form and create a stencil of the image.

While a person may see most of the dreams as just foreign text, Taho hopes that everybody will be able to identify with at least one part of the display.

Members of the Cambridge community can submit dreams in either their native language or in English; the project will need help translating the other languages.

Spot to be comfortable for everyone

"As a resident and artist, [Taho's] concern with the issues of cultural identity and the nature of public space is very relevant to Central Square," said Director of the MIT Council for the Arts Susan R. Cohen. "It is the most diverse community in Cambridge."

Indeed, Taho has strived for a balance between the different constituents of Central Square, in terms of income, age, gender, nationality, and educational level.

Working intimately with members of the Cambridge community, Taho and project architect Steve Carr wanted to create an inviting, comfortable atmosphere for everyone to enjoy. Every aspect of the design was carefully considered, from the shape of the seating areas to the type of trees to plant to the addition of more lights for nighttime safety, they said.

The scattered placement of "brick carpets," colorful patterns inlaid into the existing brickwork, helped to create a feeling of home, Taho said. This is meant to reflect the intimate mix of residences and businesses in Central Square.

The openness of the space invites passersby to stop for a while, Taho said. There may also be occasional performances or other entertainment in the square, she said.

Another design consideration was to recycle as many of the existing elements as possible to maintain the "continuity of the public memory," Taho said.

In addition to the display of the dreams, there will be several major changes to the square. That corner of the intersection will be squared off, extending into part of the street. One of the bus stops will be moved slightly.

The process began last June, when a panel of Cambridge-appointed jurors chose candidates from the 1,200 in the Arts Council's Public Art Slide Registry. Taho was chosen out of the three finalists.

Taho's previous work challenges people to interact with their communities and positively examine their dreams. In her "Transformation of Zero," exhibited in San Francisco last year, participants planted "dream money balls" made of their dreams, shredded dollar bills, earth, and grass seeds.

In "Multicultural Diplomats," a temporary display in 1994, Taho created a large network of inflated latex gloves with dreams inside, draped over a historical building in Atlanta.

"Multicultural Manifestoes" follows in this spirit. But the project combines the temporary characteristic of community participation and the permanent installation of the dream towers in the Square.

Initially, "I was not sure if I was going to collect dreams," although the city was not opposed to the idea, Taho said. The challenge was to design a new way of presenting the dreams. Many dreams were about money. "At first I thought they didn't take my message very seriously," but often people wished for money for their families or their self esteem, she said. "The dreams that can sound very shallow could be interpreted in a very humane way."