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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Successful Transformations?

William Whyte known as a ‘people-watcher’ is my most favorite person in our profession and the master of public spaces, in my opinion. I am fascinated by his approach to public places and design perspectives because it is all about different layers of the society and people, and encourages interaction and diversity. In his film The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces he analyzes different plazas, playgrounds, neighborhoods, and public spaces from different perspectives which I definitely encourage you to watch.

After watching that film, I realized that water and light features as well as green spaces are main elements that attract people to a specific space –programmed or not. For example, I think the design of the Apple Store Plaza on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, NY turned out to be a very successful and functional public space (to my friends who know me well: it’s not about Apple and I still don’t like their products). This space attracts countless groups of people during the day which is mostly because of the water features, nice green spaces and trees, but also because of the ‘freedom of choice’. The fact that people have different choices for using a space makes it a desirable and attractive environment for them. For example: they can sit on the edge of the sidewalk, along the water fountain, under a tree and the shade, move the chairs around and use a table, or just even walk around. I spent about 2 hours in that plaza sitting around, walking, people watching, etc. and noticed that many other people have been doing the same. The most interesting part is that it is very diverse by attracting tourists, residents, college students, professionals, and elderly. (pictures to come soon)

One of my favorite public spaces in NYC is the Father Duffy Plaza in Times Square (or better known as the “red stairs”) designed by William Fellows.
This plaza is unfortunately surrounded by many irritating factors such as: the very loud traffic congestion, crowded sidewalks and spaces, and on top of all, the infinite waste of energy by the illuminating beautiful lights amplifying the severe Light Pollution conditions above NYC. However, considering all the negatives, I still see it as a successful public gathering space mostly because of its ‘light features’ and ‘freedom of choice’. Unlike the Apple Plaza there is no water feature and green space, but there are many attractive lighting features and people have a choice of sitting at the tables in the middle of Times Square for coffee or standing above the red stairs to take pictures and observe the fast paced movement of the surrounding; while another group of people is in line waiting to buy show tickets at the discount ticket booths under the red staircase. It definitely is a successful multi-functioning programmed space for multiple user groups with lots of pedestrian space.

I think we need more spatial designs like this that transform a traditional place to a modern and novel space without changing the familiar environment and sense of place. It is possible to design work that follows traditions but interprets them in a contemporary way, creating new traditions.

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