Public Plazas: Permanent to Temporary

Macro to Micro

What makes a vibrant and memorable  gathering place? In architect Robert Gatje’s visually compelling and insightful new book Great Public Squares (W. W. Norton, 2010) — a collection of his drawings and writings —

it has to do with material, pattern, scale, and spatial dynamism, not to mention history and complex socio-economic forces. Bob forces us to think more deeply about why certain public places are so memorable to us. He has drawn forty public squares to scale so you can compare each central place with its surroundings. His cover image of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, essentially a remodel by Michaelangelo, is especially seductive. It captures the force field that is the swirling oval pattern at the center appearing to pull the two flanking facades off kilter, crimping them toward the entrance even as they appear to slide past the building at the center. This intense play between space and structure, which is a function of all great public spaces, has always interested architects.  Bob makes these ideas visible in vivid new ways.  Look at his drawing of St. Mark’s Square in Venice:

and you immediately see how remarkable the square’s long sweeping flank is, both as a rhetorical gesture and as a virtual demonstration of civic power, clearing away the clutter of urban density while making a virtue of it at the same instant. Also see the way St. Mark’s Cathedral thrusts into the square instead of simply forming a boundary to it; how the island that is the campanile lets space — and often tides — eddy around it; and how the colonnades wrap the square in a layer of theatricality that connects everything to the  Grand Canal itself. It’s all so vividly expressed in the  modeled shadow, light, and vibrant color.  You’ll find similar visual analyses of such landmarks as New York’s Rockefeller Center, the Place Des Vosges in Paris, and Prague’s Old Town Square.

I asked Bob how this book came about. Here’s what he said:

“The inspiration is in the small black and white plans of Camillo Sitte (late 19th century Austrian architect and city planning theoretician) that he drew at the same scale to let architects get a comparative idea of his favorite squares.”

{NOTE: Here’s an example of Sitte’s drawing of the Place de l’Etoile in Paris, courtesy Cornell Library.}

“I just quadrupled Sitte’s scale to 1:1000, added color and shadows, and there we were.” A great idea, Bob!

OK, so if you don’t have five or six hundred years, a cultural renaissance or two, a sovereign treasure, and ample travertine and other long lasting materials — what can you do? The little town of Hercules, California, north of Oakland, might offer a lesson.

Here’s the ribbon cutting ceremony for their new market place/food hall/shopping/event park. Hercules — where dynamite was once manufactured — had evolved into a bedroom community with no central place for public events. Enter The Red Barn Company, an enlightened Newport Beach-based developer of new communities, which persuaded the city to provide a temporary use permit to convert an undertilized transit parking lot into a miniature multifunctional gathering place called Hercules Market Hall.

Here’s a shot of the market place “spine” where each boutique is made from recycled cargo containers.

Here’s the food hall, with Korean barbecue and Mexican taco trucks just visible parked along the wings. Every structure can be dismantled and moved. I visited on opening day and was impressed: hundreds of people enjoying a variety of activities and each other’s company. It’s the brainchild of  Red Barn founding partner Tom Weigel, who told me he was excited– and relieved — to see so many people enjoying themselves. It’s quite literally a moveable feast and might offer a template for other communities in need of central meeting zones. The Hercules Market Hall will move to another location when the housing development gets under way. The dynamite is in the temporary details!

2 responses to “Public Plazas: Permanent to Temporary

  1. Bob’s new book looks great on your blog! Thanks for the heads up that it’s finally in print… I’ll have to get my hands on one to complete my Gatje set.

  2. this is totally great.

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