Post 696 –by Gautam Shah
This is the 4 th article of series: ‘CORNERS’.
Public spaces turn impromptu arenas with political, social and cultural interest, accompanied by some economic activities. The spaces manifest as gathering places, where events recur on specific days like full-moon days, low tide days, Sundays or annual days. Such places occur with some preexisting location cues like a built-form or a natural feature. A gathering place is the starting element of a larger concept of a social space. Defined passageways or casual pathways feed these places. The ending faces of such feed points, give unique and lasting shape to the form. The architectural contour may take ages to evolve on its own, or is remastered for a style by a ruler or plutocrat. In both the cases the essence of social place and shape of the form are sustained.
The words plaza, place and piazza have the same Greek origin, with plaza being the Spanish adaption, place in French, and piazza the Italian one.
Public spaces subsist on enclosures. Enclosures occur first by barriers of natural elements like terrestrial masses, water bodies, edges of terrain contours, silhouettes. Public spaces are realized as the physical reach, limits of power or sanctimony and the sensorial perceptibility. The public spaces are delineated by the facade planes and mass of the built objects. Facades’ perimeter becomes extensively lineated when the space is multi-angular, and the connecting passages do not abut at right angles. Compared to these, variations in ‘squared public spaces’ are too few, flat and uninteresting from any spatial position and at any time of the day. The multi cornered irregularly, shaped public spaces create vivid spaces. But straight roads converted into public or pedestrian space just by eliminating the vehicular traffic create a static space.
Squared public space is rarely a natural development. The improvisations touch only the main level, but other floors continue to operate with their unrelated businesses. The public is expected to get the relief of participation by coming here out of their ghettos. The space making barriers of plants and shrubs, architectural contours, or street occupations like stalls or fountains and furniture, forge the visual depth and physical reach, but behind it, the enclosures of the facades remain unchanged. Squared architectural public spaces remain sterile entities, in spite of occupational interventions.
The enclosures of public spaces occur by a mix of circumstances and situations. The variations of sunny and shadowed sections through the day and across the seasons are recurrent, and so taken for granted. But sunny and shadowed zones affect the functional spread, and define the usage schedules of public spaces. These also promote the use of moderating devices like awnings and screens, which in turn create vibrant edges. The varying sunlight brightens up the facades, more so when these are oriented at acute angles. The daylight variations in morning haze and in evening twilight the change the perception. The edges recede or advance, and add new effects of diffused or enhanced silhouettes. Night illumination of public spaces was once spotty, but by contrast highlighted the warmly lit interiors. Modern outdoor illumination of the floor and facades transform the spatial definitions. At night the unseen undulations, angles, depths, reach of interiors, scattered elements of space, all reveal new formations.
The environmental variations in ‘squared public spaces’ are prosaic and uninteresting, because the spaces, facades remain constant. The illumination is without any variation and consistent from all locations. Lack of angles in the space fail to create dark-light contrasts. There are few surprises. What has been formatted on the ground was perceived through as a ‘site-plan’ or site-model’, always viewed from above. Nowadays ‘walk-throughs’ as 3D modelling are attempted, yet the comprehension is extremely narrow, selective and subjective. The squared public spaces remain naive ‘compositions of horizontal and vertical surfaces which create volumes of vacancy’.
Public spaces are of three basic types: naturally evolved, remastered with buildings or landscape design, and freshly planned. The considerations are visual edges, skyline or silhouettes, spatial interventions through elemental positioning, barriers, scaling, mastering patterns, perspectives, etc. But corners are rarely ‘designed or exploited’, yet they are omnipresent and unassailable. Corners remain, characteristic essence of the space.
The enclosures, of long walls facades, make the area finite. But the feed streets or lanes serve as reference points and with their depth increase the perimeter. The corners at feed points are inclusive, because here the change is noted, but open to negotiation. The sited elements do not form the public space, but the movement of light, shadows, sources, strengths and spread of illumination, people moving around perceiving the changing orientation of objects, visual changes in colour, texture and scale, all give a temporal scale.
In this respect, Cullen made a valuable distinction between ‘enclosure’ and ‘closure’. Enclosure, he argued, provided a complete ‘private world’ that is inward -looking, static and self-sufficient. Closure, by contrast involved the division of the urban environment into a series of visually digestible and coherent ‘episodes’ retaining a sense of progression.
Vertical enclosing elements strongly scale the open spaces. The difference is acutely realized when older open spaces begin to be surrounded by tall structures. It is also true that denser and taller surroundings provide more footsteps. Public buildings like places of religion, court of law, or government offices, older monuments with large fore-spaces are compressed by taller surroundings.
In public spaces, a dramatic change is experienced when architecture and environment, together differentiate the exterior versus the interior. The realization is spatially extreme and temporally sudden, in terms of scale, temperature, and illumination. It is something akin to what Peter Zumthor has described, the transition as “an incredible sense of place, an unbelievable feeling of concentration. We suddenly become aware of being enclosed, of something enveloping us, keeping us together, [and] holding us.” Crossing the threshold from outside to inside bring the sudden feeling of being confined, and in reverse direction it is a relief. The thresholds are well marked and easily sensed, though some allow a slowed transition.
In Western India, areas beyond the Fort gates of towns and cities are impromptu public spaces, formed by traders and others who have no visitation rights. But the gate leads to narrow road branching out at a point called ‘Chakla’. Chakla is a smaller scale public space as commercial hub for the insiders. It was also socially safer.
Public spaces are more envisioned by the spread of the floor. The floors unless contoured and with patterned colour and textures, do not offer any divisions. The floor patterns have been explored as coalescing and regimenting factor. The imposed geometry of the pattern connects diverse and askew elements in the open space. Floorings are free flow or with bounding the perimeter, but are not the physical edges. Other important elements of floor occupation are the shadows of sunlight and night illumination. Both of these, cast visual and functional zones.
The terms ‘public space or gathering place’ is often used for large spaces that are mere cross road junctions. The surrounding areas have high commercial activity. The users are business visitors, tourists or commuters, but no local users. The movements are of Two types: One set is between adjacent feed points generating peripheral traffic, and other consists of cross traffic dividing the space into various sections. The First, creates impinging circumferential pressure on near by buildings, whereas the Second, scales the space, till the density and intensity are low remains low, giving it a perception of ‘manageable zones’.
Distinct urban connections are desired for public places, but not ones that create the impinging circumferential pressures or divide the space into various sections. The simpleton urban design strategy is to devise ‘traffic free spaces’ by blocking and diverting the movement. The plan should be to favour the local residents over the business visitors, tourists and commuters. In many of the public spaces the local residents are shifted out in favour of non resident visitors.
‘Piazzas feel like being in human-scaled outdoor rooms; very large courtyards, not like the aforementioned parking, cars and sometimes skyscrapers that are associated with plazas’.