Oct 19, 2010

Public Space Site Observations

We began our journey in search of public space with three sites in mind: the Silver Towers, a residential complex for NYU faculty members; the Brooklyn Bridge; and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn near the Franklin Avenue subway stop. We chose these three for their diversity of environment, both geographically and structurally.

Site 1: Silver Towers


Silver Towers is an odd paradox of stark, industrial architecture punctuated with intimate family activity. Built in the 1960s, it consists of three Soviet Brutalist style complexes forming an open box around a grassy island. This green space is the obvious focal point and houses a very large, imposing statue created by Picasso. A driveway runs the perimeter of the green space and to close the box established by the buildings is a wide sidewalk with a ledge for sitting a green space behind that for play (but not for dogs). The entire complex felt cold, and children were generally the only ones who interacted with the space outside of its prescribed boundaries. As an exercise in observing and analyzing public space, these factors made it a great place to start, but in the end we decided that the character of the space was more conducive to observation, largely due to the hermetic nature of the space; namely, that it might feel too forced. On a minor note, we also thought the inhabitants (or their security force) might not see our endeavors as enriching the space.

Site 2: Brooklyn Bridge


Next we took the 6 train down to the Brooklyn Bridge. Both of us were immediately inspired by the opportunities and challenges working in such a space would involve. There are a few characteristics of bridges as a general symbol that were immediately appealing to both of us: bridges connect two separated spaces; bridges are thresholds from one place to another; all types of people use bridges (whether driving, walking, or biking); bridges must economize horizontal space; bridges have the capacity to facilitate a distinct type of connection between an individual and other people (an intimate friend, passerby, or cantankerous biker); individual and him/herself; an individual and the immediate space of the bridge as a structural environment (the trusses, the cables, the cars passing underneath, the people walking by, etc.); an individual and the passive space of the background, namely the two places the bridge unites and the landscape in between. In a word, bridges are inherently liminal spaces, in between spaces, and very powerful in their capacity to stimulate interaction. Their uses are multifarious, serving as spaces for transportation, personal reflection, social interaction, and more. This liminality also serves another function, deeply necessary for the above relationships: it offers the individual a sense of scale, both in space and time.

The BK Bridge has a rich cultural history as a symbol of New York, most importantly as a symbol that all New Yorkers as well as visitors can lay claim to. I think the latter part of that statement is very important in underscoring the bridge as a binding force; walking the Brooklyn Bridge is a (literal) rite of passage. The bridge is an equalizer of sorts, largely a result of its past. There is a spectrum of events that narrowly converge to form the vast and vibrant history of the Brooklyn Bridge. Here are some of the histories we will be exploring:

  • the conception and construction of begun by John Augustus Roebling in 1867 and completed in 1883;
  • the significance of the bridge’s architectural feats and the dynamics of suspension bridges in general;
  • transit strikes and other events that increased pedestrian traffic;
  • Olafur Eliasson’s Brooklyn Bridge waterfall installations;
  • the space once inhabited by the Twin Towers;
  • also interesting is the recent controversy surrounding the BK Bridge Park art vendors (http://gothamist.com/2010/10/01/brooklyn_bridge_park_1.php).

Our Crossing

We had not had the pleasure of walking the bridge recently, which in retrospect was key for the experience we had while crossing. Stepping up to the foot of the bridge, we were immediately surrounded and passed by a diverse crowd of crossers. As we continued walking, a few distinct characteristics and behavior patterns emerged from the group: almost everyone was taking pictures or recording video, no one paid attention to the bike lane, bikers become very upset at this, people stopped at various points along the path for sight-seeing, picture-taking, inspecting a historic marker, etc. Individual groups or couples tended to form larger groups at a few locations that seemed ideal for picture-taking, especially places which captured both the skyline and the bridge towers in their focal plane.

We immediately confronted our first challenge, which was twofold: (1) people were already interacting with bridge and (2) the amount of unused space to work within seemed to confined. A few key observations about the space allowed us to rethink the assumptions of these two problems. First, we noticed that the most unused space on a bridge is vertical. Cars inhabit the lower levels, giving the above onlookers a sense of omniscience and scale. Second, the dynamics of the bridge create fascinating pockets as you approach the middle that seem to lack noise (I choose this word carefully) and wind – this intensifies the feeling of completing an epic journey once you arrive on the other side. Third, the bridge emits a variety of interesting sounds, which are generally ignored by people who are aurally engaged by their own conversations or iPods or cell phones.. Fourth, crossers have a heightened relationship to real time travel. At the other end of the bridge, we had one solid project idea and many themes to continue exploring:

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