Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Toward an Authentic History Plaza in Central Park, Part II: Design Objectives & Actions (24)


This is the second of a two-part post. The first part (#22, Nov. 19, this blog) focused on design aspects of adaptively reusing the historic WPA building as a signal feature of an authentic History Plaza. This post focuses on design of the area more generally.

I think there are at last three design objectives of an authentic History Plaza and at least seven actions that can be taken to achieve them.  

These are the three design objectives. One, the area should convey an open and spacious feeling (which it does not at this time). Two, even while spacious, it should communicate physical unity, integration, and wholeness. Three, design features should promote a sense of, and the reality of, personal safety and security.

Notice that I have not mentioned conveying history as an objective. This is because the memorial garden and WPA building already begin to go a long way along that road. We need more history work in a new plaza, certainly (such as signage labeling it a “History Plaza”). But we also need to think about other objectives qua plaza.

Here are seven suggested design actions.

l. Remove the trellis from the WPA building. I think this alone will do wonders for opening up the area. (Images 1, 2, 3.)

2. Take down the fence with the vines on it between the memorial garden and the WPA building. (Images 1, 2.)

3. Rethink all of the landscaping around the memorial garden in terms of relating it to the WPA building. For example, just how much of that hedge, if any, is needed? Does the hedge fronting C Street separate the plaza from the street too much? (Images 1, 2.)

4. How might the benches in the memorial garden be redone so as to better relate to a more comprehensive and unified scheme of seating that encompasses the entire plaza? Or, are those benches, or any benches, needed?

5. Consider carefully how all the plaza trees might or might not be pruned at the lower limb levels to “lift” the “ceiling” of the area.

6. Create a unified plaza surface treatment. (Image 5.) In good Davis fashion, a new and unifying plaza surface should be permeable, textured, natural, and a color found in nature.  

7. Take out: 1) the wooden bench around the tree north of the WPA building; 2) all the white, iron fence next to the HW Museum; and, 3) the landscaping hedge next to that fencing and in that area generally. (Images 5, 6, 7).

Over the last 15 years (since 1996), I have spent an enormous number of hours in and around the HW Museum as a researcher, exhibiter, docent, and “hanger outer.”  “Being there,” I have observed the “problem population” that has tended to congregate at the bench around the tree at the rear door of the HW. (Image 5.) The white iron fence with its hedge provides screening from the street for anyone who sits or lies down between them and the HW building. I have seen people sleeping even on the north (5th Street) side of the HW, shielded by the iron fence, hedge and air conditioner there. (Images 6, 7.)

 In my view, the WPA building is only a modest contributor to homeless congregation at the rear door of the HW building. Instead, equal or more important contributors are the tree bench, fence, and hedge. Taken together, these features create a nice outdoor club gathering space for people with highly constricted options for hanging out.*

All those features should be removed and replaced with lawn or new History Plaza surface, as appropriate.

(An aside: the tree-bench, fence and hedge constellation at the back door of the HW is yet another example of a design notion that seemed a good idea at the time, but did not work. Over 15 years, I have only rarely seen it used--and not because of the “homeless problem.” It simply did not augment life at the HW.)

Sorry to go on so long about item 7, but it is key, I think. This, though, ends my list.

It is in the nature of drawing up plans that I have failed to list critical considerations (e. g. video surveillance, lighting, police foot patrolling) and I propose things that are obvious nonsense when rightly understood. Other minds have much work to do.

Many thanks for your patience in reading through this post.
* Of course these factors massively fade in import compared to the causal role of the availably of public toilets. If one really wants to deter homeless gathering in Central Park, one has to close the public toilets, I think. That will not happen, of course, so design features become all the more important. Even so, there are limits. After all, it is a public park.