Posts Tagged ‘Visitor comfort’

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.



Guest post: Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia

January 9, 2012

Our friend Dotty DeCoster, a dedicated and thoughtful museum visitor, recently visited the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia and sends this report:

“We went up to Victoria for a few days over Christmas weekend and among other visitations and ramblings about town, visited the  Royal Museum, which is right on the waterfront next door to the Parliament Buildings (for B.C.).

“This museum remains what I think of as the quintessential natural history/provincial history museum.  I do not understand why the dioramas here are so much more lovely and interesting than those in other places — and I’ve seen dioramas in many, many places.  But they are.  Perhaps it has something to do with the way that each one is treated separately, based on its theme, and each is uncluttered while containing just the right number of exemplar artifacts?  I really don’t know.  But they are wonderful.  New to me was the ‘undersea’ display — one is in a model (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea style) undersea module.  It is a treasure, with interactive displays built in.  (The older displays have been added to with nearby hands-on opportunities, games, and activities.)

Ocean Station, Natural History Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“But best of all, this museum has seating in every single display, along with devoting all of their “wasted space” (really well lit view corridors) to seating.  It is truly comfortable to be in this museum, to take time at each display.  The model town and the amazing space devoted to northwest coast native artifacts are not quite so well endowed — which is to say that there is seating, but it is not quite so integral to the display cases, and they were designed expecting people to climb stairs (but there are ways to avoid this).

Old Town, Modern History Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“The museum has an inexpensive cafe, lots of restrooms, and a whole wing devoted to a comfortable seating area which serves as a living room for visitors to Victoria, whether or not you pay museum admission.  There’s also a store, but we didn’t have any trouble avoiding it.

“In terms of displays, although I like the whole museum and admire the taxidermy, the most important exhibits (in the sense of world wide interest) are certainly the Northwest coast native (aboriginal, I believe, is the Canadian term) collection.  The collection is extensive, inclusive, and well interpreted.  Low light, of course, because they are actual artifacts, not copies.

Kwakwaka’wakw Masks, First Peoples Gallery, Royal BC Museum. Copyright Royal BC Museum.

“Take your time, then go find a seat and rest, then come back.  It’s a lot to take in on one visit.  Escalators serve the exhibition floors.  (I like this — you can peek at things as you go from one floor to another.)”

Thanks, Dotty!

(Note: Photos were downloaded by me from the museum’s website)


Calif. Academy of Sciences Aquarium: Second-Rate Monterey

October 11, 2011

The Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences tries very hard to be another Monterey Bay Aquarium – going for that immersive, “wow” experience that MBA does so well:

The problem is, the aquarium at the Academy is basically an afterthought, stuffed into the basement, with nowhere near the square footage of its southerly rival.

It’s disturbingly dark (as opposed to serenely dark), with no straight lines – which makes for a rather disorienting visitor experience. Not to mention difficult to navigate for anyone with mobility issues.

Low lighting often makes for signs and labels that are difficult to read.

Unlike Monterey Bay Aquarium, entire wings of which are bathed in natural light, the new downstairs Steinhart Aquarium is lit only by ceiling lights. Exhibits like the Tidepool, which ideally should attempt to reproduce or at least realistically represent the experience of a real tidepool at the open ocean, instead become something you might see next to a craps table in the eternal twilight of a Las Vegas casino.

For anyone who remembers the old Steinhart Aquarium, pre-Renzo Piano rebuild, the new aquarium is a sad experience. The old Steinhart was spacious, contemplative, and actually had far more tanks with a lot more sea life. It was, and felt like, an integral part of the Academy of Sciences – and its exhibitry related a lot more to the local environment of northern California. It was successful on its own terms without trying to be something it wasn’t.


Calif. Academy of Sciences: Everybody Line Up

September 14, 2011

I visited the California Academy of Sciences earlier this year for only the second time since the old complex of buildings was torn down and replaced with a new edifice designed by Renzo Piano, which opened in 2008. This visit confirmed my earlier first impression: the new Academy is long on crowds and, unlike the old Academy, short on absorbing exhibits.

It’s also a place of lines. Lines to get in the building…


Lines to get into the famous Rainforest exhibition…

Lines to get into the planetarium…

lines in the aquarium…

and lines to eat in the overpriced cafeteria…

It’s a huge building, but relatively little of it is given over to exhibit space. There’s a lot of open floor with high ceilings where visitors wander semi-aimlessly.

On the other hand, the new Academy is very popular – the lines are there not just because of poor design but because there are lots of visitors. Most of them, I suspect, are from out of town or moved to SF after the old Academy was torn down, so they have no basis of comparison. In any case, they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

For contrast, here is a Peter Hartlaub SF Gate blog entry, with photos, on the old Academy.


Pinnacles National Monument: Nature made accessible

September 6, 2011

After a hiatus of several months, I’ve returned to this blog for more discussions of visitor comfort and accessibility in public spaces. Thanks to everyone for your patience while I’ve been away.

One of our recent trips that helped refresh and inspire me was a trip to Pinnacles National Monument, about 150 miles south of San Francisco off US Highway 101. It’s a little-known national park that feels as if it’s a million miles from the nearest city.

There are some excellent hikes for those who are so inclined – with wildflowers and California Condors in spring, or so I am told – but there’s a lot to see without going too far from your car. Acorn woodpeckers, for example, are everywhere.


In fact, you don’t even have to  leave your car to view wildlife such as wild turkeys, browsing in the woods:

There are a number of trails that are specifically designed to be accessible to visitors with disabilities. There’s camping, and motels and restaurants are about 40 miles away in King City, CA. Altogether, an easy place to refresh the body, mind, and spirit without leaving civilization too far behind.


Point Reyes Lighthouse: Comfort in the Big Outdoors

May 8, 2011

The lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore is one of our favorite day trip destinations in the Bay Area. In terms of access, one of its nicest aspects is its flexibility and open-endedness. From the parking lot to the viewing platform above the lighthouse itself, the entire experience is physically accessible to a very wide range of ages and abilities. It’s one of the best physical, psychological, and spiritual getaways around, just two hours north of San Francisco.

Even if you don’t get any farther than this bench a few yards from the parking lot, you’ll still have beautiful visit to a stunning location. (Be sure to bring warm, windproof clothes.)

The easy quarter mile road from the parking lot to the visitor center is closed to most vehicles. It’s an inviting path, with something lovely to see around every bend.

Even the signs – which are informative and well-designed, in an eighties sort of way – have gorgeous views.

The visitor center is just a small, folksy hut that hasn’t been improved or changed in at least 25 years – which I think is to its advantage. Nothing high-tech or intrusive, just functional and informative displays and very patient and knowledgeable personnel behind the desk.

If you can handle the long walk down to the lighthouse proper (and back up again), by all means do it. We have spent some of the most tranquil hours of our lives down there, sitting out in the sun, fog, wind, mist, and rain – sometimes all in the same visit – searching the ocean for migrating grey whales or just gazing out at the ocean, the birds, the occasional sea lion, enveloped by the sound of the sea and the moan of the fog horn. It’s comfort of a very deep kind.

If you are unable to go down the stairs, or not inclined, you can hang around on the upper viewing platform and have much the same experience, without the foghorn and with longer views. In all the years we’ve been going to Point Reyes, it has never been less than spectacularly beautiful and deeply refreshing to the mind and spirit, no matter what the season or the weather.

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.

LACMA: White cubes still rule

April 11, 2011

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art still believes in white cubes – those minimalist display spaces that are an essential part of the modernist art experience in contemporary museums.

It seems to be a requirement that the white cube, in its purest form, must have no seating, as in this photography exhibit in the newly opened Resnick Pavillion.


Across the way at the Broad Contemporary (a museum within a museum), the scene could have been lifted from any major art museum any time in the last 50 years:

White walls, wood floors, no seats, pensive visitors in black, and a television on the floor – cathode ray, no less, for that classic touch.

An adjoining gallery had the requisite ambiguous constructions:

And to complete the sense that the visitor is but an acolyte at the altar of culture – a mere supplicant who must work hard for any rewards the art might have to offer – we have the inevitable unobtrusive label in the small typeface:

The Broad’s insistence on the old-fashioned “display-space-must-not-in-any-way-compete-with-the-art” aesthetic would almost be endearing if it didn’t make for so much discomfort.


LACMA: Outside looking in

March 29, 2011

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a mixed experience for the visitor, or at least this visitor. It’s a jumble of art and architecture, with no real physical or emotional center. But they’re working on it.

A recent visit on a sunny day in mid-March helped me to appreciate different aspects of the Grand Entrance Pavillion, situated between the Ahmanson Building (on the left) and the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art.

Looking to the north – 180 degrees opposite the view above – the broad expanse of lawn and sky invite lounging and sunning.

In fact, sunning is encouraged by the presence of concrete chaise lounges.

Even on a late winter day with relatively low sun, the lounges and the lawn were bathed in warmth.

The pavillion now has two new places to eat and drink – Ray’s, a restaurant, and the Stark Bar, both run by Patina, purveyors of museum food seemingly everywhere you go.

The good part is the presence of two outdoor establishments. The bad part is the pricing, which is not exactly populist: for lunch at Ray’s, sandwiches are in the $11 to $15 range, and main courses go for around $20. So-called bar bites at the Stark run $8-ish to $15-ish; the bar also offers an encyclopedic selection of small-batch handcrafted liquors and cocktails from $10 up. All fine and good if you’re relatively well-to-do and/or able to spend a lot of disposable income on food and drink. Not so accessible, financially speaking, if you’re not.

Florence, Italy: Where the streets have no room

February 1, 2011

The historic Renaissance core of Florence, Italy looks much as it did in previous centuries.

At street level, however, there is a problem: a city scaled for pedestrians, carts, and horses is filled with traffic.


The sidewalks are incredibly narrow. Many are narrower than this:

The result is that pedestrians and cars have to share space in a way that is not safe or convenient for either.

This was around late December or early January, when tourists are at a fairly low ebb. I can’t imagine the chaos of summer.