Every other Friday afternoon, my studio has (or tries to squeeze in) something called our “Friday presentation,” an hour reserved for learning where a coworker usually presents a current project or something of general architectural interest. This was my first time attending a Friday presentation, and as there was no presenter this particular week, we watched a documentary instead.
It was titled The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, a 1980s documentary by William “Holly” Whyte that had originally accompanied his book by the same title. To explain how I felt while watching the documentary wouldn’t capture enough of my interest and excitement.
Whyte covers the basic ingredients of successful urban spaces–seating, sun, and water to name a few–in a study of New York City’s different plazas. Although the people studied are obviously of a different era given their fashion styles, their behavior–their very human behavior–described in Whyte’s witty and informative manner remains absolutely contemporary. I was both surprised and amused by the simple brilliance of one of Whyte’s findings:
“People tend to sit most where there are places to sit.”
Ha! Talk about anticlimactic. But yet, so true!
For example, take downtown Long Beach, California. During my lunch hour, I will often go outside to find a place to relax and enjoy my break. A hard task, and this isn’t even a suburb. I might just write a separate blog about my findings (or lack thereof!) In general however, I have found that while the nearby Promenade and parks do have some scattered seating, they’re rather lacking in “sit appeal.” Of the ones I did find, many are too small or narrow to sit on without extra efforts. One park I tried was completely shaded by its adjoining office building and felt very damp, mossy, and much too cold. Some benches were hardly deep enough to actually fully sit on, and at striking height of 5′-1 3/4″, I’m hardly long-legged. The point is, a successful plaza will offer a variety of seating choices, all of which should appeal to the average person. Oftentimes, I think, designers of places and objects of such importance do not sincerely design for people, but rather for aesthetic appeal that achieves a look or trend of the moment. I can tell you, however, that sitting on a piece of art has yet to allow me to enjoy my lunch in comfort!
The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is thus a true eye-opener, giving viewers insightful perspective on every-day places we often don’t think twice about. It is the second inspiration for this blog. View the online video above!
A copy of the text can be found here.