Tag Archives: urban design

The Qualities of Public Spaces: Four Case Studies

Fra_Carnevale_-_The_Ideal_City_-_Walters_37677Successful public spaces are those places where celebrations are held, social and economic exchanges occur, friends run into each other, and cultures mix. They are the “front porches” of our public institutions – libraries, field houses, schools – where we interact with each other and government. When these spaces work well, they serve as the stage for our public lives.

What Makes Some Places Succeed While Others Fail?
The Project for Public Spaces has identified four qualities generally shared by successful public spaces around the world: 1). they are accessible – the have good connectivity; 2). people are engaged in activities there; 3). the space is comfortable and has a good image; and finally, 4). it’s a sociable place, one where people meet each other and take people when they come to visit. Continue reading

What American Cities Can Learn From Italian Piazzas

Looking down on the Piazza Del Campo from the Torre del Mangia

Looking down on the Piazza Del Campo, Sienna from the Torre del Mangia

When the paradigm of American modernist architecture crumbled, urbanists began a quest for credible alternatives that often took them to the streets and squares of old Italian cities.

Deciphering the code of Italy’s thriving public life became a process of redemption from the sterilizing over-rationalization of the urban landscape that had been carried out by professionals of the previous generation. Continue reading

What Makes a Great Public Space?

b_730_82467935-5807-445b-9193-13ece12c901aIt’s a question that’s often asked and answered by urban planners and placemakers. The current media debate about costumed panhandlers in New York City’s Times Square adds even more grist to the mill. Numerous physical and social qualities that make a great public space have been proposed. These lists often run into double digits. Numerous illustrative examples have also been proffered. Such an exercise, of course, is highly subjective. Scholars and citizens reasonably disagree over the extent to which size, scale, degree of physical enclosure, amenities, aesthetics, and other variables matter. Continue reading

Vying for Position: The World’s Most Sustainable Cities

Curitiba, Brazil widely regarded as the world's first and largest experiment in sustainable urbanism.

Curitiba, Brazil widely regarded as the world’s first and largest experiment in sustainable urbanism.

There exist various lists, or indexes (pl. indices), identifying which cities around the globe are considered to be “greenest” according to each index’ author. Continue reading

Greening The Palomar

Designed by prominent California architectWilliam H. Weeks the historic Hotel Palomar building is considered to be quintessential of late 1920's Art Deco style.

Designed by prominent California architect William H. Weeks the historic Hotel Palomar building is considered to be quintessential of late 1920’s Art Deco style.

The Palomar Inn (former Palomar Hotel) in downtown Santa Cruz has been the subject of considerable public discussion in recent months. Debate has centered on whether the landmark building should be encouraged to gentrify, to be restored to its glory days of the 1920’s when as a grand hotel it served as a focal point on the national convention circuit. A separate, more important debate which has not yet emerged is whether the building should be “greened”.

Greening the Palomar would mean rehabilitating the building with the latest in current sustainable building practices. Towards this end measures which could be incorporated might include implementation of plumbing improvements to reduce water usage, provision for on-site renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics, revamping the building’s electrical power and lighting systems to reduce it’s energy use, and other best practices aimed at reduction of Palomar’s carbon footprint.

It could also include green walls.


By greening the Palomar Inn the owners will send the clear, unambiguous message that they are committed to sustainability in general and to sustainable building practices in particular.

Green walls, also known as living walls, biowalls, ecowalls or vertical gardens, take advantage of vertical surfaces to provide buildings with a greater degree of ecological capacity.
 By incorporating living plants into the façade of a building they directly result in much-needed carbon sequestration. Moreover they filter particulates, carbon dioxide, and other pollutants from the urban airstream, and remove effluents including heavy metals from rainwater. By introducing green microclimates they not only reduce the urban heat island effect, but result in natural habitat creation as well. By selecting appropriate plants, green walls can function as vertical edible gardens. Finally, a well-designed green wall can enhance the aesthetic presentation of a building.

Aside from the obvious practical advantages to the owner’s bottom line in terms of improved energy performance and visual appeal, greening the Palomar will symbolically accomplish three things.

Firstly, doing so will send a clear and unambiguous message that the owners of The Palomar are committed to sustainability in general, and to sustainable building practice in particular.

Secondly, given that The Palomar is among the most significant civic edifices on the Santa Cruz skyline, greening the building can and will inspire other local and regional business leaders to do the same.

Finally, as an urban landmark and widely recognized symbol of Santa Cruz, greening the Palomar will enable the City of Santa Cruz as a municipality to demonstrate to other municipalities, to California, and indeed to the green movement in general that, eight years-on after passage of one of the earliest green building programs in the country, Santa Cruz still stands in the vanguard of sustainable building practice.

The Annals of Urban Design: Kresge College

by Matthew Pinsker
University of California, Santa Cruz
Daniel Matthew Silvernail Architect Intern

The assemblage of buildings known as Kresge College at UCSC supports social interaction through its Italian hilltop village design, where dormitories overlook the narrow streets and flow of the community. Architects Charles Moore and William Turnbull appear to have considered solar orientation in the college’s design, allowing students to temporally occupy warm and cool zones appropriately with their social interacting needs.

Map of Kresge College  Provided by the UCSC website

Map of Kresge College
Provided by the UCSC website

The L-shaped armature comprising Kresge College located on the west side of campus consists of narrow streets lined with dormitories, classrooms, and community murals acting as a nexus guiding students toward areas of assemblage located at each end. According to the Kresge Housing Guide 2011-2012 (as cited in Kaitlin Ryan’s Master’s thesis 2012), “The college prides itself in being ‘a scheme based on a model of a traditional Mediterranean village, with doorways and walkways that open into winding pedestrian streets allowing for easy conversation from balcony to balcony and along the streets of the college itself’” 56.

Modeling the assemblage of buildings after an Italian hilltop village suggests students were intended to live within close proximity to one another to increase a sense of unity. The dormitory positioning allows residents to face and observe the streets, permitting association with and responsibility for the community. As residents proceed through the streets and recline in permitted zones of Kresge College onlookers can extrapolate how the architects understood the use of sunlight or lack thereof to manage social interaction.

Upper Street leading to Owl's Next Cafe Taken at 12 PM

Taken at 12 PM

Upper Street leading to Owl's Next Cafe Taken at 9 AM

Taken at 9 AM
Upper Street leading to Owl’s Next Cafe

Upper Street leading to Owl's Next Cafe Taken at 3 PM

Taken at 3 PM

Personally conducted observations of social interaction within Kresge College were conducted on April 22nd and 24th of 2014 at intervals of 9 AM, 12 PM, and 3 PM.

The least amount of social interaction appears to occur around 9 AM as students travel by one through dimly lit zones to their morning classes. At this time the sun is positioned at about a 60 degree angle towards the east directly behind a set of redwood trees, hindering sunlight exposure and student desire to interact in designated areas. Around 12 PM the amount of social interaction increases as it is lunchtime and students begin to travel in groups ranging from one to four people. The densest and most reliably sunny area is the Owl’s Nest Café located at the north end of the L-shaped College as the sun is at its culmination. At this time social interaction is transient, as students must navigate towards their afternoon classes. Due to the commonality of morning classes the time of day when student free time begins to peak is 3 PM where students divide into groups of about one to three. Less warm zones exist for students to congregate, but are occupied sensibly to unwind from the day.

Moore and Turnbull appear to have realized that warm zones increase the flow of students and delineate areas to inhabit, conversely potential gathering areas are disregarded at the times of day when students are likely to be busy and cannot afford social interaction.

Kresge College was prudently modeled after an Italian hilltop village, incorporating a design offering a pervasive sense of student involvement within the community wherever one resided. Design architects Charles Moore and William Turnbull seem to have understood the need for a layout that would delineate areas for social interaction, signaling how solar orientation affects public space. Students are busy and cannot afford major distractions; therefore the orientation of the college encourages social interaction at appropriate times of day in accordance with the commonplace student’s assumed productivity levels.

To learn more about Kresge College, a helpful resource is About Kresge College and History and Architecture of Kresge College.

For further reading:

Ryan, Kaitlin E. (2012). Preserving Postmodern Architecture and the Legacy of Charles W. Moore (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from Columbia University Academic Commons. (http://hdl.handle.net/10022/AC:P:13356)

City Planning According to Artistic Principles

 The Piazza della Signoria in Florence Bernardo Bellotto, c.1742 Oil on canvas. Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary

The Piazza della Signoria in Florence
Bernardo Bellotto, c.1742
Oil on canvas. Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary

Camillo Sitte (1843-1903) was a noted Viennese painter, architect, theorist, and planner. He distinguished himself in the art of city planning culminating in his seminal work City Planning According to Artistic Principles with great influence and authority on the evolution of urban planning and its regulation on the European continent. This work has subsequently gone on to influence generations of urban designers and architects throughout the world.

City Planning According to Artistic Principles was an aesthetic criticism of the design of urban spaces as they were being realized at the end of the nineteenth century. While mainly concerned with urban planning, the book has had a deep influence on architecture inasmuch as the two are integrally intertwined disciplines.

modenapiazzeFor Sitte, the most important aspect of civic buildings was not the architectural form of the buildings themselves but rather their how their form, characteristics, and deployment as building blocks contributed to the character and quality of urban spaces. In preparing his work, Sitte travelled extensively to study the spatial structures of then-contemporary city plazas of his own native Vienna, in Paris, Salzburg, Rothenburg on the Tauber, Dresden, and dozens of other European cities, carefully sketching their physical planimetrics, elevations of their significant buildings, and placement of statues, fountains and other monuments within those spaces.

He similarly studied their earlier precedents in Athens, Rome, Florence, Venice and Pisa. He applauded the practice in ancient Greece, Rome, and during the Italian Renaissance of deploying buildings of monumental character as the physical walls of those plazas and urban spaces. Imagining what civic life in these urban spaces must have been like in the times of Pericles, Julius Caesar, and Lorenzo the Magnificent, he reflected on how the architects and city planners of those times had designed aesthetically superior spaces reinforcing civic culture.

Sitte criticized the trend of contemporary urban planners to isolate the placement of significant civic buildings, churches, and monuments as celebrated objects, confronting them as to how such elements had been presented in former times, not as individual objects but instead as ornaments woven into the tapestry of the urban space.

He similarly criticized the regular, obsessive order of contemporary plazas being built by contrasting them to the irregularity of those of the medieval city. More importantly, he identified camillo-sitte-study-of-medieval-plazasfrom a psychological viewpoint the importance of proportion to human scale as critical to the design of effective civic spaces. In so doing he opposed trends among his contemporaries towards broad, over-scaled boulevards, avenues, and squares, enjoining instead that, “a square should be seen as a room: it should form an enclosed space”.

Among his most valuable contributions to urban design theory and practice is his implementation of the figure-ground diagram. His diagrams, carefully drawn to scale, captured planimetrically the formal patterns of the urban spaces he studied. By delineating the solid masses of buildings (“figure”) against the negative space between them (“ground”) he helped popularize an invaluable tool in the analysis of civic spaces.

Above the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori

The Campo seen from the Palazzo Pio.

The Campo seen from the Palazzo Pio.

The Palazzo Pio viewed from the Campo dei Fiori
The Palazzo Pio viewed from the Campo de’ Fiori

In 1987 I was accepted as an exchange student and graduate student in residence at the Palazzo Pio on the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome.

The Campo, or square, is not a large square nor is it a small space as far as such places go. In Rome there are much larger public spaces, and there are smaller, more intimate spaces attached to the urban fabric of the City. The Campo is not as grand as the Piazza del Popolo, nor as formal as, for instance, the Compidoglio. But suffice to say that for a time I was intimately and emotionally attached to the Campo de’ Fiori.

As I understand it, both the Campo itself and the Palazzo Pio owe their very existence to the original Roman foundations beneath them. The very trace of the Palazzo Pio’s footprint was apparently built upon the foundation of the ruins of the Temple of Venux Victrix of the Theater of Pompey.


The daily morning market with the Palazzo Pio at upper left. The statue is that of the renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno.

The Campo de’ Fiori at sunset

The Palazzo Pio itself was said to have originated with a medieval structure built upon the ancient Roman foundations and was said to have been re-constituted as a Palazzo (palace) during the Renaissance. The Palazzo’s formal organization in elevation follows the classical model pertaining to elite members of Italian Renaissance society of the period, including retail functions at the ground floor, support and public family functions at the middle floor, and private and formal familial functions at the uppermost (or piano nobile) floor.

Somehow upon arrival at the Palazzo I was fortunate to be housed in an apartment on the piano nobile – not all of my fellow students were so fortunate.

That said, for those of us who were there we enjoyed a mid-level and amazing hang-out space, an intimate hang-out overlooking our esteemed position directly above the daily cycle of the Campo de’ Fiori.

Design for Sustainability


In an age of prefab homes, remodels and additions, the built environment is constantly changing. Rarely does a building’s original structure endure these changes, resulting in waste and consumption of materials and energy. The few structures that do withstand demolition, however, tend to be historically and culturally significant. In being so, a building’s capacity to sustain these stressors is reflective of valuable design.

The “one size fits all” design aesthetic that emerged in the global age “tend(s) to overwhelm (and ignore) natural and cultural diversity, resulting in less variety” and a loss in cultural significance (McDonough 2002: 33). Thoughtless design perpetuates sprawl, uniformity and meaningless development. Without authenticity, or an intention for cultural development, the built environment looses its importance in the community.

With the environmental context, the materials used, renewable energy sourced and level of LEED certification obtained traditionally measure a building’s sustainability.  Although there is great importance in these aspects of green building, the element of design is considerably overlooked.  Beyond aesthetics, design is seldom considered a factor of sustainability. Original design, reflective of the community it was built for, establishes an intergenerational significance. Culturally significant buildings that are representative of the community, inevitably survive longer by being restored and reused. In contrast, insignificant design perpetuates uniformity and eventual demolition- enabling the cycle of waste and consumption. Authenticity is essential in determining a building’s value, duration of occupancy, lifespan and sustainability.

This longevity aids in the creation of culture, and lasts across generations. Failure to construct a building that is representative of its culture, will impact its ability to survive, resulting in demolition, abandonment, and reconstruction. Thus, thoughtful, original design is the ultimate factor in determining a building’s sustainability- its capacity for durability and reuse.

Book Haven Bookstore

displayToday I discovered a photo of Book Haven Bookstore posted to the web. I designed Book Haven some years ago, and it has since become a regional landmark in the rare book community.

The photograph, taken by Katherine Herrera in black and white, features the crystalline stillness of the books arrayed on their shelves whose lines of perspective takes our eye through windows to a place outside the bookstore, where through the glass we catch a glimpse of an atmospheric landscape – plantings, a majestic tree and further away, a building façade.

When I designed Book Haven, the raw space that was to become this landmark bookstore was neither majestic nor memorable. The walls, floor, ceiling had been stripped to their bare bones, and there was nothing to be seen within the empty space but raw concrete floor and walls and the exposed trusses above.

Excitingly that raw space turned out to adjoin Robert Louis Stevenson House to the east and Jules Simoneau Plaza with it’s Monterey Transit Plaza on Tyler Street to the west. In the brainstorming sessions leading up to the design, establishing a direct axis from the Transit Plaza to Robert Louis Stevenson House proved to be infeasible. Instead it was determined to focus the energy of Book Haven’s interior spaces to engage as directly and as fulsomely as possible with Tyler Street and the public plaza beyond. We envisioned a quiet, calm space with a public presence on Jules Simoneau Plaza.

Katherine Herrera’s photo clearly captures that original intent.

Less abstractly she tangibly captures the play of light on the palpable spines of the books, and the diffuse quality of the world beyond. Katherine was obviously in love with this interior. Her caption reads, “This is where I want my ashes scattered”.

Katherine’s photo won the “Photo of the Day Award” in the Capture Monterey Photo Contest in February, 2012. To visit the link to this award-winning photo, click here.