Posts Tagged ‘urban public space’

Brutalism has its charms

May 5, 2014

Washington, DC is a city of many, many museums. However, most are closed by the time the working day is over, and none are usually open at night, except for movies or performances. For the daily comfort and pleasure of the average working resident, museums matter a lot less than streets, public spaces, and buildings.

 

HUD building 1

One prominent, even historically significant, building is the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. From the neighborhood of Southwest, you see it brooding over the highway that divides that quadrant from central Washington.

 

HUD building 2

Designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1968, it’s ugly and forbidding in a way that’s all too common among federal buildings of that era. Some of the ugliness derives from the Brutalist exterior: slabs of stained and weathered raw concrete. Mostly, though, it’s simply an ugly, awkward design.

 

 

HUD building 3

However — also like many buildings of that era — it has a saving grace, from a pedestrian’s point of view: you can walk under it.

 

HUD building 4

Pretty much the entire sidewalk level of the building is a giant arcade. An ugly, dark, and severely utilitarian arcade, but in a city of hot summers and frequent precipitation, any shelter is better than none.

 

HUD building 5

One unintentionally comic touch, in the plaza facing 7th Street, is a cluster of donuts or flying saucers. Originally, Breuer left this plaza completely bare of seating, shade, or any other amenity for pedestrians. These elements were added in the 1990s with the intention of providing something for people to sit. In my anecdotal observation, they are never used.

 

HUD building 6

The building does yield one pleasant secret, however. On the west side, tucked in between it and the next building over, is a small green park-like area that should provide a bit of relief from the summer heat. Such spaces are too rare in Washington. This one is even accessible to people with limited mobility.

 

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Retro-Future Washington, DC

March 13, 2014

 

View of street in SW Washington

When I visit Washington, DC, I generally stay in the quiet, friendly, tree-lined neighborhood known as Southwest.

View of SW

It’s not the well-known Washington of stately neoclassic buildings, famous monuments, and cherry trees.

Much of Southwest was wiped out by so-called urban renewal in the 1950s and 60s, when planners were in love with the idea of destroying the old-fashioned urban grid, with its pedestrians and human-scaled buildings and street life, and replacing it all with freeways, giant buildings, and parking lots.

Old and new building together

Such a freeway separates Southwest from the very heart of Washington — from the National Mall, in fact — and the result is incoherent and strange. The zone between Southwest and the Mall is a sort of demented, brutalist Radiant City gone dark.

 

Building on stilts

Buildings on stilts with highways running under them!

 

Underground parking zone

Soulless, creepy zones devoted entirely to automobiles!

 

More stilts

More stilts on top of crumbling overpasses!

 

Ugly structures and Smithsonian

… All within a few minutes’ stroll of the Smithsonian Castle, the other museums, and the Mall.

 

It’s the result of a conscious decision by planners and politicians to favor the automobile over people — a bias that is still very much evident in the Washington metro area today. I hope that some of my future posts will examine the consequences of that decision.

 

Monterey Bay Fisherman’s Wharf: Runaway Success

March 1, 2014

View of crowds on Fisherman's Wharf

 

Fisherman’s Wharf is the heart of a highly successful and heavily used public space in Monterey, California. On a mild afternoon in February, the crowds were thick and cheerful.

 

View of the wharf, late afternoon

Unlike the wharf in San Francisco, this one actually has fishing boats nearby, and the restaurants serve a certain amount of fresh local seafood.

 

Strollers on trail

The Wharf is just one feature along the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, which runs for miles along the shoreline of the Monterey Bay. A very popular paved and accessible part of the trail connects the Wharf and downtown Monterey with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

 

Strollers and wheelchair user on trail

 The trail, a converted railroad line, is a great example of a public space that actually encourages public use. A wide variety of  people of all ages and physical abilities were getting out and enjoying themselves along the shore of the beautiful Bay.

 

People enjoying the trail and the bay

 

Update: Sue Bierman Park, San Francisco

February 11, 2014

Sometimes, public space in San Francisco actually gets improved. That’s the case in Sue Bierman Park, down by the Embarcadero, where a playground opened in 2013. 

Photo of children's playground at Sue Bierman Park, San Francisco

In an earlier post, I expressed skepticism that this might occur, and am happy to be proved wrong.

plaque commemorating the construction of the playground at Sue Bierman park

Meanwhile, in a nearby tree…

Photo of tree near park

The local parrots amused themselves as usual, with no need of a slide or swings.

Photo of parrots in nearby tree

 

 

 

Citigroup Center, Los Angeles: A respite from the cubicle

April 27, 2011

We didn’t evolve to sit in cubicles. Every hour we spend staring at a screen, surrounded by beige walls and taupe carpet and khaki co-workers, is a stress. We need green, open spaces in which to momentarily reconnect with our primate selves.

One of the more pleasant retreats for the office workers of downtown Los Angeles can be found at Citigroup Center, a the corner of West 5th and South Flower.


There’s a pleasant mix of open and closed spaces, closed corners and wide views, trees and sun. Plus the refreshing sight and sound of water.

Follow the steps or escalator down, and you discover that it is in fact a waterfall.

This area would be especially cool and refreshing on a hot, sunny, smoggy day.

I like this space not because it is special, but simply because it’s an area of very expensive real estate that was creatively and thoughtfully designed to make people comfortable while they take a break from their jobs. Yes, legally mandated to be set aside for that purpose, I know – but better than it has to be.