Staging Urban Landscapes – Contemporary approaches to the design of public spaces

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The definition of public space, consulting a dictionary, is the following: “The space above or below public areas and particularly streets and squares, whose occupation is subject to a special tax in favor of the Municipality or other body”. In turn, decomposable into two terms, space reports “The field available for objects of reality as they are considered identified by a location or position, with dimensions, and susceptible to displacement”, while public proposes three declinations depending on its meaning: 1) “Relating to an area to which the rights or interests of a civilly ordered community belong or refer”; 2) “Of the community understood as a social totality”; 3) “The set of people currently or potentially participating or present”.

From these definitions it can be deduced that public space is based on two main components. One of these, space, is therefore architecturally speaking the physicality of the place, the set of voids created by the buildings, in which the second element, the public, circulates and interacts. This latter represents the mobile component and a variable that “potentially” must be taken into utmost consideration. The “susceptibility to displacement” is the key on which a reflection on urban spaces that has lasted for more than twenty years is established.

On these matters, B. Cannon Ivers, landscape architect, researcher, Director at LDA Design and teaching fellow at the Bartlett School of Landscape Architecture, has set the reflection at the basis of his book Staging Urban Landscapes: The Activation and Curation of Flexible Public Spaces (Birkhäuser, 2018). Although the issues addressed are based on an in-depth research of the design approach regarding urban spaces and the consequent scientific literature produced starting around 1960, the beginning of his interest in this subject has more poetic roots. A move from a small town in Colorado to the big metropolis of London. A radical change of perspective and space, accentuated by traveling by bicycle, thus observing the continuous change in the conformation of the places of the city. From here began an accurate documentation, which led Ivers to focus on a new need for designers: create spaces that allow the adaptation over time of changes, intertwining and overlapping.

The key to achieving this type of public space lies in two fundamental concepts: flexibility and activation. Flexibility concerns the adaptability of the space, its propensity to accommodate situations, events, manifestations of different nature. Flexibility is also closely connected to the type of use of the public space, it depends on the number of people and their interests. Activation concerns the aptitude to “light up” a space, to make it vital through participation processes, involving possible users, actively proposing new uses. The author suggests in the title a very interesting interpretation, the “staging” of urban landscapes, a concept beyond the more usual one of “design”. The need therefore arises to change the paradigm, passing from the “act of designing” to the “design process”, that is, from a rigid system that offers a crystallized conformation to a dynamic system that adapts fluidly to the needs and the passing of days.

The public space becomes not a fixed place in time, immutable, defined by a single purpose and function (the market square, the artists street, the monumental square, etc.), but a heterogeneous and multifunctional “theater”, where the actors are the passers-by, the performers, the traders. The implementation of this passage of concepts is subject to some factors outlined by Ivers: curiosity, which leads people to take an interest in a space already subject to interest by others; anticipation, the creation of expectation about an event; the psychological aspect concerning the ephemeral, the tendency to modify the impression about an event or a space in the instant in which it “is and will no longer be”.

Staging Urban Landscapes is made up of several essays, outlining the ways in which to proceed with the activation of urban spaces, focusing on the aspects concerning in particular programmability and flexibility, defining a new approach that favors spatial performance over static aesthetics. The reflections, numerous and proposed not only by Cannon Ivers but also by designers and researchers of the caliber of Alex Wall, Chris Reed, Nicola Dempsey, Chris Wangro, Sergio Lopez-Pineiro, Adriaan Geuze, James Corner and others, then give way to a very rich inventory of completed projects, all based on the principles set out up to now. In addition to an accurate description of the genesis of the projects, the activation methods are discussed, proposing a story made up of events and programs, as in the case of the Potters Fields Park in London, or the Navy Yard Central Green in Philadelphia.

In many cases are treated urban spaces having such a high vocation for change that they are redesigned from time to time by different architects, artists, landscape architects. This is the case of the courtyard of the MOMA PS1 museum in New York, the Serpentine Pavilion in London or the Place des Festivals and the Promenade des Artistes in Montreal.

Places where art and entertainment come together, where the requests and conditions that characterize the composition of the space vary from year to year. Places that don’t lose their identity with change, rather they reinforce it, clearly showing that it contains the symptom of our times, the will to experiment and the tension that leads to the unpredictable choice to “try”, “attempt”, “fascinate”. The descriptions are supported by an important iconographic apparatus, composed of photographs and diagrams that facilitate understanding the mechanics of the projects.

The reflections collected in this volume place an important milestone in the increasingly stringent debate regarding urban landscapes, spaces of public life, and indicate a path projected into the future to adapt the design approach, or rather the “theatrical approach” to the design of the public space, avoiding the error of proposing urban gaps to be filled according to needs.

James Corner writes in the afterword: “This wonderfully creative and instructive book speaks to the diverse range of social occasions that can occur in a variety of public spaces around the city. There are many examples in this book of colourful appropriations of inventive installations, activations and curated programmes, but the truly exceptional examples are those that marry uniquely designed places with creative programming. Truly great and timeless places foreground a powerful synergy between the designed setting and the sheer range of experiences that the space might then support, often specific to locale, environment and culture. Such reciprocity is essential to good design and to the artful enrichment of diverse urban cultures, and this book is testament to the powerful appeal of good design, artful curation and the shaping of local identity ”. A book that any student of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning should have in his personal library, and in any case a pearl for anyone be interested in with urban space and city landscapes.