Architect Miguel Rosales is transforming cities one bridge at a time
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There’s something about the bridge. For one thing, it doesn’t belong to any one person. If it does its job, it gives the neighborhood new life. Most important of all, it connects communities, literally and figuratively.
Architect Miguel Rosales, 62, walks with pride on the bridges he designed decades ago. His story is an unlikely one—a gay immigrant from Guatemala is reshaping the skylines of major cities around the world. But he doesn’t need people to know who he is, to associate his name with the bridges they love.
“I see other people walking on it and riding their bikes,” he said. “It’s very satisfying for me… I think bridges can be very transformative and can really change a town or a city. To me, they’re more important than individual buildings.”
Thirty years ago, Rosales helped transform Boston with a drawing and an idea: to make the bridge that would connect Charlestown to the West End a cable-stayed bridge, a high-rise cable-stayed bridge cheaper to build than traditional suspension bridges like the Golden Bridge. Bridge Gate.
Boston was in the midst of the Big Dig, a massively over-budget and behind-schedule project to reroute a portion of Interstate 93 underground. Rosales was appointed to a 42-person committee to address the redesign of the existing bridge.
Rosales was a young, largely untested graduate of MIT, where he studied urban and environmental design. He immigrated from Guatemala City in 1985 and has been on a mission ever since to understand what makes infrastructure great. He traveled to Europe to study bridges and major public works projects, and studied the plans of countries that invested in roads in ways that the United States did not.
Now, sitting with this committee in Boston, he had the opportunity to prove something. By February 1991, the committee had drafted a plan for the bridge: 16 lanes of traffic, through a series of rings suspended over the water.
Charles Redmon, a member of the bridge’s design review committee, later told the Harvard Gazette that residents on both sides of the river complained that it was “the ugliest monster anyone has ever seen.”
“I don’t think anyone could find anywhere in the United States a bigger, more difficult mess than spaghetti on the road,” Redmon said.
Young Rosales had a different idea.
“That area had been abandoned for a long time and was not attractive at all,” he said.
An elegant and modern bridge was needed. The famous Swiss engineer Christian Mehn, who was about to join the project, agreed. The crossing needed a cable-stayed bridge.
“I immediately started thinking it would go well with sailboats and the marine environment there because the cables look like equipment,” he said.
In 1992, Rosales was appointed lead engineer for the $115 million project. Eleven years later, workers completed the Leonard P. Bridge. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial. It was immediately hailed as one of the city’s most iconic buildings.
The white bridge is unmistakable in the distance. The two inverted Y towers resemble delicate stringed instruments stretched across the Charles River. It’s always a theme for photographers, whether on prints or postcards on Instagram or Etsy.
Boston is an old city, at least in American terms. The city has spent generations celebrating its colonial traditions — the three-story log house in which Paul Revere embarked on his famous voyage, the replica boat where revolutionaries angrily dumped shipments of British tea into the harbor, and the townhouse Louisa May Alcott rented on Pinckney Street in Beacon Hill. The bridge stands as a modern symbol in an ancient city.
“I think there is a tension between old and new, which is very real and prominently present,” said Max Grinnell, who teaches urban studies at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, as he walked through Back Bay, a historic site. A neighborhood of brick sidewalks and multi-million dollar brownstone homes.
Architectural commissions govern many parts of downtown neighborhoods. In many areas, residents cannot legally repaint their front door the same color without approval, for fear that a new coat will violate the historic charm of the neighborhood.
But skyscrapers rose in the distance. A modern city has emerged, and the Zakim Bridge is a clear symbol of this.
“I think (the Zakim Bridge) speaks to the hope of cities as a new beginning or a new opportunity,” Grenell added.
It’s a city whose residents still value lineage, with some still boasting family trees stretching back to the Mayflower.
Rosales arrived in the United States at the age of 24 without any of that. His family didn’t have a lot of money while he was growing up. His father was a pharmacist, and his mother lived at home. He had a difficult childhood.
“I was discriminated against (against) because people felt I was too feminine, too soft, too shy, all those things that people associate with the stereotype of being gay,” Rosales said.
He wasn’t out, and when he arrived in Boston in 1985, he didn’t feel safe anymore being openly gay. He had a lot of other things working against him.
“In order to succeed, I had to be much better than everyone else,” he said. “First of all, I was foreign and Latino, but bridges are traditionally done by white men.”
The success of the Zakim Bridge opened a new world for Rosales. In 1996, he announced that he was gay. The following year, he founded Rosales + Partners, his own architecture firm.
Rosales’ projects grew in size and budget and took him around the world. In 2004, he completed the Centennial Bridge in Panama at a cost of $120 million. He designed the George Washington Carver Bridge in Des Moines, Iowa. He led plans to build a $700 million Interstate 74 Mississippi River crossing in the Quad Cities in 2022.
Around the same time that construction of the Zakim Bridge was finished, another big thing happened to Rosales: He met a man who was also interested in architecture and design. John David Corey loved restoring historic homes. He was curious about bridges too.
“He learned a lot about bridges,” Rosales said. “I show him all my designs.”
This year, the couple celebrated 20 years together, five of them married. They live in one of Boston’s strict, historic, and expensive neighborhoods: Beacon Hill. Rosales, who helped build modern Boston, loves how old the neighborhood is.
“It’s the most beautiful neighborhood in the city,” he said. “My opinion is that it is very consistent and well maintained.”
Rosales sees no contradiction between love of modern architecture and reverence for the ancient. In 2019, the Boston Conservation Alliance awarded the Longfellow Bridge Rehabilitation Project a Preservation Achievement Award, noting that the project remained true to its 1901 aesthetic while meeting modern standards. Rosales served as architect on the project.
The same principles apply across generations and across continents, Rosales says.
“I think if they were ugly they wouldn’t be landmarks,” he said. “Beauty sells. If something is beautiful, people are attracted to it and they don’t even know why.