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.