Sunday, December 4, 2011

The textscape we live in: the public realm

This weekend's New York Times has an insightful piece, "Treasuring Urban Oases," by architecture critic Michael Kimmelman focusing on Alex Garvin and his view of the "public realm."

Garvin (I confess to being a fan, and I worked for him for a while) has long been among the most public champions working today for both the concept and the reality / building of the public realm: the shared spaces (no matter who "owns them") that residents and transients of the city pass through in their daily lives (and "occupy," both in the traditional definition and in the new political perspective).

As champion of the public realm, Garvin has taught for many years at the Yale School of Architecture and has led or been associated with the development of some great public spaces throughout the country, both as a city official and more recently as a private consultant. He also has written some of the classic texts on the topic.

But as Kimmelman's piece unintentionally suggests, focus on the public realm seems almost quaintly old fashioned. The New York City zoning law is 50 years old and not much of a vibrant challenge to enlivening new spaces. The majority of successful spaces that Kimmelman notes are classic, authentically successful and admirable achievements, but hardly "new" (Grand Central Station, Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park). The most recent example cited is noteworthy: the pedestrian-ization of Times Square -- an experiment that seems to be working (and not yet in its final form). But Times Square is an improved re-purposing and adaptation of what was previously already a great space (for many obvious reasons).

Most talk about the public realm, by Kimmelman and others, seems to be elegaic. I appreciated the focus on Garvin in Kimmelman's article, but I wish Kimmelman had written more about the places in which the future of the public realm is being shaped -- places and situations where the stakes are high.

I think that the concept of "the public realm" just hasn't sunk in (or maybe, it has sunk in too much; not dangerous anymore). It's hard not to think of the public realm as streetscaping after the architectural concept is in place. In fact, the public realm is a kind of skeleton, not a skin, of a truly successful space. One almost yearns for a new belief in a feng-shui-ish sensibility. The public realm is actually a kind of spatial-social network -- a flow of energy that can be constrained or empowered -- into which the physical infrastructure gets fitted.