Michael Kimmelman on the Power of Public Space
I recently saw Michael Kimmelman speak at Barnard College as part of a interdisciplinary series the public good. Kimmelman is the architecture critic for the New York Times, and he’s written several books, including one on Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
He spoke about the “power of place;” specifically, public spaces. Parks, plazas, streets and our shared infrastructure in sum make up the public realm, or, as Romand Coles says, the “capillaries of democracy.”
There’s a tendency among architecture critics to focus – perhaps understandably – on individual buildings, amounting to what Kimmelman describes as reviews of “gowns on the red carpet.” While achievements in architecture for individual buildings should be celebrated, lost in the discussion was a conversation about the larger public sphere. How do these buildings impact the experience of those outside the building, who don’t use or have access to it? Questions about the public realm are finally getting the attention they rightfully deserve.
The Design of Public Spaces
The public realm is, said Kimmelman, nothing less than the “framework around which everything else grows.” Kimelman, who began his career as a music critic and is also a successful pianist, discussed in detail the aesthetic value of public space. New York City’s High Line has recently captured the public imagination. It’s received near-universal acclaim for design sensibility: a delightful blend of industrial utility and modern ecological sensibilities.
The High Line: A Much Celebrated Public Space
Kimmelman also discussed in detail the example of Pennsylvania Station. Penn Station is one, if not the busiest train stations in the Western World. Traveling through it can be an unpleasant experience; transversing its complicated maze of underground tunnels is an often-confusing and unglamorous way of traveling. Of course, it was not always this way. Half a century ago, the original Penn Station was destroyed to make way for Penn Plaza and Madison Square Garden.
What Once Was: Penn Station, Demolished in 1963
At the time, the New York Times called the destruction of Penn Station a “monumental act of vandalism.” Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote about the difference between the two stations that previously “one entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” Kimmelman noted that the newer station Madison Square Garden has been around almost as long as old Penn Station.
There are plenty of lessons in the destruction of Penn Station. For one, it taught a difficult but important lesson about the value of our architectural heritage, and helped spark a push for New York City’s first architectural preservation statutes. But for a discussion of public spaces, its perhaps most noteworthy that the grand design of the original Penn Station was conceived by private interests. Pennsylvania Railroad was persuaded by architects McKim, Mead and White that they owed the city a monumental gateway.
Kimmelman recently wrote an article in the Times proposing to move Madison Square Garden to the west side of Manhattan, where the Javits Convention Center currently is. The proposal involves a number of complicated moves, including possibly relocating Amtrak to the nearby post office, and the whole proposal hinges on the construction of a new convention center near JFK airport. But Kimmelman’s point was that today private interests too often outweigh public interests. We need to refocus our priorities on projects that have a greater common good — like how Penn Station was once constructed to maximize public space.
Public Space and Public Consciousness
Public space serves a purpose beyond the aesthetic. The relationship of the built environment and public health is also finally getting the attention it deserves. Too, public space has important cultural significance and meaning. Kimmelman cited the flourishing of makeshift memorials after 9/11. Public spaces in New York City – and around the country – became forums for dialogue, expressions of solidarity, and grieving.
Makeshift Memorials After 9/11
Carving out high-quality public space in New York has always been a challenge. I recently visited the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit on the expansion of Manhattan’s grid. It’s striking that in the original 1811 Randel plan didn’t call for a large public space on the scale of Central Park. It really was a plan driven by development interests.
In many New York City neighborhoods, parks are token gestures occupying the spaces between buildings. New York’s zoning resolution pass 50 years ago attempted to address this deficiency by providing incentive program for public spaces. By allowing density bonuses (meaning taller, more profitable buildings), developers built public spaces in exchange. The parks and plazas that resulted exist in a unique legal state. These privately-owned public open spaces (abbreviated as “POPS”, or, less often but more expressively as “POPOS”) often don’t feel public at all.
Zuccotti Park Was the Center of the Occupy Wall Street Protests
Just how public these POPS were came into public focus with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement. These protests were centered around Zuccotti Park, a POPS in downtown Manhattan, just around the corner from Wall Street. Over the course of the demonstrations, protesters transformed Zuccotti Park into a miniature city, with a library, medical center, cafeteria and more. As Kimmelman said, it was significant that this movement was based in a physical location. It wasn’t purely an online campaign or something similar; rather it was a protest linked in a place. As Kimmelman has argued, nothing replaces people physically taking to the streets. Places “haunt our imaginations.”
The symbolism of Zuccotti Park — its proximity to Wall Street, its private ownership, its compact space (which could look jammed with just a few hundred people) — all worked in helping transforming an “institutional space” into a truly democratic “insurgent space.” As Kimmelman argued, that takes political will more than anything, but its also predicated on the very existence of these kinds of public spaces — places where political gatherings are, if not encouraged, at least tolerated.