Fred A. Bernstein

How much design do public spaces need?

Published in Architectural Record, August 14, 2003

HEADLINE: In the public realm: Does low-tech work better than high design?

by Fred A. Bernstein

Good documentaries about architecture are rare, so it's a treat to find one at the Van Alen Institute in conjunction with the current exhibition, Open. Made by the Australian Broadcasting Company, the film tells the story of Federation Square, a recently completed cultural complex in Melbourne [RECORD, June 2003, page 108]. The program is a cautionary tale about both process (the architects ended up accusing the builders of "vandalism") and result (Federation Square looks dreadful, all jagged metal and sharded glass). In the documentary, architect Peter Davidson (whose partner in the project was Daniel Libeskind protEgE Donald Bates) concedes that the two haven't landed any large commissions since the $ 260 million job was finished in October 2002. He also allows that the pleasure that visitors take in the square -- sunning themselves, lounging on the grass -- has little to do with the aggressive architecture.

Which raises the question: Do we need "New Designs for Public Space," which is the subtitle of the exhibition? Or do we just need more of the old "designs" -- lawns, trees, rocks, benches? Isn't the problem of urban open space mainly political (that is, getting land set aside for public use), rather than architectural?

One of the most successful projects in the show is Alameda el Povenir, a pedestrian and bicycle path that cuts through some of the poorest neighborhoods of Bogota, Colombia. It is essentially an 11-mile-long macadam driveway, and photos show it crowded with grateful users. And Southpoint, at the tip of New York City's Roosevelt Island, has become popular merely by virtue of being open to the public. That is, two of the least-designed open spaces seem (from the evidence in the show) to be more successful than the ones in which star architects strut their stuff.

The show, curated by the Van Alen's Zoe Ryan and designed by Freecell Collective, occupies a space outfitted in blue-green Plexiglas, suggestive of a swimming pool. Ryan didn't have an easy time making the show as lucid as it is; unbuilt landscapes are even more difficult than unbuilt buildings to depict in two dimensions. A few of the projects are underdocumented. Zaha Hadid's One-North, a high-tech office park, is billed as "a new landscape that aims to achieve Singapore's necessary density without its characteristic patterns of interiorization and segregation," but it's impossible to see from the renderings how it would do that. For that reason, the show is best when dealing with completed projects, including Vito Acconci's Island in the Mur, in Graz, Austria, [RECORD, May 2003, page 123], which looks far more inviting surrounded by rushing water than it ever did on paper.

A few proposals show great promise. Peter Eisenman's Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, under construction in Berlin, creates a stunning, inflected topography from 2,700 columns. UN Studio's Ponte Parodi plan for Genoa uses folded planes (forming both the surface of a pier and the roof of an outlet mall) to gracefully extend the city seaward. And the Oslo National Opera House, by Snhetta, looks to be a prime example of what Kenneth Frampton calls a "megaform" -- a building that responds to and extends natural features, as much a landscape as an object in a landscape. (The Oslo project is a close cousin of Arthur Erickson's Museum of Glass, which gives Tacoma, Washington, a vibrant new neighborhood on its roof.)

Some of the most successful public spaces in the show are buildings. Norman Foster's London City Hall uses the metaphor of "transparency" in government to brilliant effect. And Gluckman Mayner Architects' Mori Museum, in Tokyo, creates an intriguing series of spaces -- both in plan and section -- within an office tower. But Will Alsop's Fourth Grace, a building scheduled for construction in Liverpool, looks -- no exaggeration -- like Foster's City Hall after a bombing. The Van Alen's wall text announces that Alsop's building "will shout that the long-suffering port has left behind its industrial past." But a bulldozer and some grass seed could have done that.

Like any good survey, Open is entertaining and instructive. And in New York -- where the reuse of the High Line, the reconstruction at the World Trade Center site, and the completion of the Hudson River Park are all progressing -- it's a big help. Still, one can't help thinking that London's Serpentine Gallery, which erects an architectural showpiece in Kensington Gardens each summer, then removes it in the fall, is onto something: Architectural experimentation is fine (at least for a few months), but plain old open space works all the time.