Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Public Places Need People, Some More than Others

Public places should be designed to attract people.  (Admittedly, too many are designed to feed the egos of design professionals and city councils, but that’s a topic for another time.)  A good public place should only be fully realized when it’s filled with people enjoying themselves.

But some places have an even greater need for people.  They require people to avoid being creepy.

During my extended travels to CNU 23, I spent an evening in Pittsburgh.  A North Bay friend who had recently relocated to Pittsburgh offered to give me a tour of some of his favorite urban settings in the Steel City.

And so it was that after we enjoyed jumbo fish sandwiches at the Original Oyster House on Market Square (plain, but tasty), we walked over a block to look at the plaza in the heart of PPG Place, a cluster of neogothic towers executed in heavily shaded plate glass by famed architect Philip Johnson.  (PPG was formerly Pittsburgh Plate Glass, hence the unusual choice of building materials.)

Personally, I found the architectural style rather contrived.  I could appreciate the architectural and engineering skills involved in presenting gothic in plate glass, but just because one can do something doesn’t mean that one should.

However, even worse, at least on a grey, overcast evening in early spring, was the plaza itself.  With only a few lonely people hustling through the otherwise deserted plaza, with the austere and foreboding glass spires surrounding the plaza on all sides, and with the massive granite obelisk commanding the center of plaza, I found the scene unsettling.  It was as if the dark minions were silently awaiting orders from their evil overlord.

I felt badly for my friend.  Here he was, having graciously given up his evening, less than day after returning from a two-week vacation in Japan, to give me an urbanist tour of Pittsburgh and I was repaying him by describing one of his favorite places as something from the plains of Mordor, deep in Middle Earth.  But it was overwhelming impression that struck me.

I’m sure that when the plaza is filled at Christmastime with a skating rink, happy children, Christmas trees, and a dusting of snow, it’s a fine and happy place. 

But on a chill and largely deserted April evening, I kept looking about for a hobbit sneaking through, seeking a place to dispose of a gold ring.

Next time, I’ll touch on some North Bay topics, including a report from a Petaluma meeting on transit funding, the upcoming Petaluma Urban Chat topic, and a possible City Repair project that is taking another step forward.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

No comments:

Post a Comment