Paleo Retiree writes:
For no doubt perverse and disgraceful reasons I enjoy snapping photos of architectural goofs. One of the mistakes I’m most drawn to noticing and documenting is what I think of as “crap space” — pockets of in-betweenness (or out-in-frontness, or just plain overlooked-ness) that might have had some life had they been conceived of and created with care and respect, but which in reality weren’t and so just don’t.
Modernism, you’ll be stunned to learn, has been spectacularly successful in the generation of crap spaces — plazas no one lingers in, parks the public avoids, indentations that collect windy swirls of garbage, etc. This particular tendency of modernism — its disastrously bad record where the spaces in between its art-thing buildings go — used to be openly acknowledged even by modernists themselves. But that was back in a more lively, open and rowdy era. As the architectural establishment has reasserted its dominance over the public discussion of buildings and urbanism, that simple and self-evident fact — apparent to anyone with eyes and instincts — seems to have vanished down the memory hole. It’s time to pull it out and proclaim it loud, sez I. So today I kick off a new series: crap spaces. Let’s acknowledge that they exist; let’s talk about what may have gone wrong.
Today’s example strikes me as a primo example of something all too common: a new, or newish, park that simply isn’t working. I passed by and snapped it on a beautiful summer day. Why is almost no one using it? Despite the fact that it’s a handy shortcut between two streets, no one’s even walking through it. Why?
My own hunch is a very general one: it’s because nothing about this park really says “park.” Instead, despite the efforts that have been made to humanize it with furniture and greenery, this crap space declares itself to be pretty much what it almost certainly is: empty space that’s been inserted between two buildings for the sake of earning a developer a tax break. You can pretty much see the proposal’s checklist laid out in front of you: X number of square feet, X amount of vegetation, X number of benches, X touches of liveliness and playfulness, X pieces of movable furniture … According to current academic/urbanistic theory, the above list should, when translated into actual fact, all come together to equal “an inviting and user-friendly park.” Yet for some reason it doesn’t. The recipe remains a recipe, and never turns itself into a dish. A park is something more — something more traditional and more organic — than an empty space that has been filled up with a checklist of items that committees associate with parks.
Curious to hear what others’ hunches are about the failure of this crap space.
- To my mind, Christopher Alexander and Leon Krier explain better than anyone else why some buildings and spaces have life and some don’t. (As far as I’m concerned, in fact, Alexander and Krier both qualify as Major Geniuses of Our Era.) The best Alexander book to start with is this one. This is the Krier to start with. Both books are easy to read; they’re also complete mind-blowers with implications for all the arts, not just architecture. Read and be amazed. I reviewed the Krier book for Salon.
- Back at my old blog, I did several interviews with the mathematician and architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros, an associate of Christopher Alexander’s. He’s very brilliant and clear. Start with this interview: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.
- David Sucher’s “City Comforts” is a down-to-earth distillation of a lot of wisdom about how to create better towns and cities. Buy a dozen copies and give them to whoever it is who’s in charge of development in your town, county or city. I interviewed David at my old blog: Part One, Part Two.
- It’s a mystery why the architecture-and urbanism-world doesn’t spend more time revisiting its creations and evaluating how well they work or don’t work. (Imagine a chef who takes no note of whether people enjoy his food …) William Whyte was an urbanist who did exactly that. His book “City” (which he co-wrote with Paco Underhill) was the result of his studies, and it’s full of fascinating looks at things like parks and street corners.
- The Project for Public Spaces is a “placemaking” organization inspired by Whyte’s work.
Zoning rules might have required developers to create these spaces.
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People like grass, and water, not concrete. Park benches plonked down on concrete sidewalks will never be as inviting as those in parks, in the midst of green grass, overlooking a pond or river, not a vista of concrete slabs.
Trees and vines alone don’t do the trick. It’s not a natural space unless the ground level as well as the space around and above is natural. Therefore it fails to appeal.
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Well, it does give the bums, excuse me, street-people a nice place for some quiet and solitude after a hard day of pan-handling.
There are some brutal (in the architectural and dictionary meanings of the word) public spaces in the town I live. It’s very, very hot here in the summer, and there are a couple spaces with concrete benches, shapes from the abyss meant to be art, and NO SHADE. The homeless don’t even use it. It’s stupid.
I’m a fan of modernist interiors, but man does modernism suck at building human-like exteriors and especially public spaces. I’m a big fan of those pop-up mini-parks that started in 2005 in San Francisco here (http://rebargroup.org/parking/), not necessarily to actually use, although I have seen people use them, but as statements against both the lack and awful design of modern public spaces. It’s now kind of a movement with an annual PARK(ing) Day (http://parkingday.org/about-parking-day/), and it’s spread to other cities.
I suppose it didn’t look like that in the architectural rendering.
Had some time to think about it and I reckon the park fails for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, the space “feels” hard and cold. Psychologically it is uninviting.
One of the big problems here is aesthetics, with the public and the architects having different perspectives on the subject.
Architects design according to their taste preferences and not that of the public, hence the failure of a lot of public space.
Secondly, no “focus” or no point of interest. The focus could be people, sunshine a kiosk, just putting a bunch of chairs there isn’t enough in a place like NYC with so many other distractions. What may have worked here is a coffee shop or a place like Pret A Manger to draw people in.
Just my brief 2 cents.
Btw, Ray. Kudos for trying to get a discussion going on this very important subject.
Artificial look-and-feel to the ground — drab gray slabs of concrete, worsened by the random patches of pink, which make it look like one of those faux Midcentury-revival tile patterns on someone’s remodeled kitchen backsplash.
Ground should be dark and earthy, with some kind of texture, to look and feel like a natural ground.
Replace with: brick pavers with subtle color variations (including some brownish ones), and with somewhat bumpy surfaces and rounded edges.
Recessed seating areas are defined by a border that only rises 1-to-2 feet high (the gray wall), leaving the whole space feeling like a wide-open void. Makes normal people agoraphobic, no place to hide.
Replace with: hedge-walls that stand 4-to-6 feet above the ground, along the existing border, with the gray border walls replaced with nice low brick walls. Tall enough to provide privacy, but short enough for passersby to catch a glimpse over the top and want to follow their curiosity.
Right side looks empty, so agoraphobia would remain even if the park-ish side were fixed.
Replace with: more or less a mirror image of the left side (when fixed). Separate the two sides with a low rectangular median wall running down the center of the path. Wall should only be wide enough to give each side its own sense of privacy and compartmentalization, and to be able to plant some shrubs, flowers, etc. These plants wouldn’t have to be as tall as the hedge-walls, maybe a two-foot median wall with flowers adding another one foot to the total height.
The only tough part is how to make more of a “ceiling” a la extensive branches of large mature trees, which can’t be plopped down in the middle of a city block. Hell, have the architect go back and put cantilevered slabs into the buildings on either side of the park, extending out to cover maybe 1/2 to 3/4 of the seating area. Move those pointless vines to cover the edge of the cantilevered slab so it doesn’t so look slabby.
No one wants to linger in a wide-open void where they can be spied on, attacked, etc., from any direction. These Midcentury-style open “floor” plans need to be compartmentalized to give each lounge-able area a secure and protected boundary, and feel small enough to provide intimacy.
To me it looks like a good place to get robbed.
People have a certain instinct. This place is the broad daylight equivalent of a dark alley at night.
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Um…that’s a park?!? It looks like spillover seating for the local Chipotle.
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