Despite lockdowns and quarantines brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, the question of how to shape public space has never felt more relevant.
A few dozen yards from Fort Point—the historic fortress tucked under the Golden Gate Bridge—lies a small and picturesque overlook. Designed by local studio Surfacedesign, the platform is a place for cyclists and passersby to stop and contemplate the bridge, the fort, and the hills of Marin County. The wooden handrail that bounds the platform is only five years old, yet looks scraped and weathered, home to hundreds of carvings and messages left behind by visitors.
“Within a couple months of opening, it became this wild surface where just about every half an inch was covered with people’s tags, notes, and so forth,” says Roderick Wyllie, founding partner and principal at Surfacedesign. “But I’m fine with us building public spaces that are resilient and beat up, so long as they are still beautiful, sensual, and provocative” he says.
Wyllie’s position comes from a unique perspective on public spaces, influenced by his research and lectures on garden design around the world. “Gardens are often these places that are functionless,” he says. “We’re not designing a lab building or an office building or a home, but sensual, very locally rooted spaces where you can’t do anything much except stand and ponder, or tell a secret, or maybe have a picnic.”
Interpreting public spaces through the lens of garden design provides a much more appealing vision for the public realm than the fast, digital, consumer-friendly solutions proposed by many architects and planners today. In our contemporary world, creating “hubs” of “multicultural expression” and “community building” has often signaled the coming of generic, gentrified retail corridors that don’t meet the demands of all inhabitants of cities.
For many years now, the public realm has been shaped not in the image of gardens but of exploded malls. Like Hudson Yards in New York City—the most expensive real estate development in U.S. history—many recent urban renewal projects are full of LED signs, cold voids, ticketed experiences, rules, regulations, surveillance, and fabricated landmarks that double as photo booths. Surrounded by luxury housing, cafes, and coworking spaces, their singular purpose is to guide us towards work, home, or consumption. While this hamster-wheel might be integral for our contemporary idea of a city—and very Delirious New York—it has all but stopped spinning in the last few months. The anxiety of the rush hour commute has been replaced by an invisible and deadly agent.
“The issue is that you get out of your front door and it’s like, boom, you have to move on, because you have to get somewhere,” says Jerome Unterreiner, principal and senior urban designer at the architecture firm ZGF. “And hey, if you want to stop at a table and you’re not patronizing a retail space, you’re loitering, so you better move. Everything is going too fast, it’s all about growth.”
Unterreiner has been asking himself a question that would resonate with many of us today: Why does it feel so strange to walk outside our front doors? According to him, the answer might have nothing to do with navigating crowds and avoiding unclean surfaces in a pandemic, but with problems that predate the current crisis by decades. “Look at Detroit—we went from horses to horsepower in a matter of decades. The first centerline was drawn in Michigan in 1911. The first stop sign was installed in Detroit in 1915. Then the first automated traffic light in 1922. Pretty soon after, the streets were only for movement, and the pedestrian was the problem.”
Unterreiner joined me in a Zoom call from Seattle, while his colleague and fellow principal at ZGF, Steven Lewis, dialed in from Los Angeles.
“By virtue of being sequestered, we have had to step outside of our front doors,” said Lewis, who, for a time, served as design director for the City of Detroit. “We have discovered how much the outside world depends on single occupancy vehicles and moving to and from work. And now, since the death of George Floyd, the lens through which we, as black folks, have looked at the country and society has been extended to many others.”
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