Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Great article on urban design qualities of Kimmel Center in Philadelphia | extendable to civic assets more generally

Proposal for a new Downtown baseball stadium in Kansas City that is tightly integrated into the urban fabric.

My writings on stadiums and arenas have a framework of elements to consider when dealing with a project.  It was developed out of the sense that activists oppose such projects, especially public funding, but most of the time they happen regardless, so why not expend our energies on mitigating the problems and yielding the most benefits.

-- "Framework of characteristics that support successful community development in association with the development of professional sports facilities ," 2021

The current stadium complex in Kansas City is surrounded by parking lots, disconnecting it from the city.

It hasn't focused so much on interior design as much as broader place characteristics and exterior features, but the comments include a number of articles such as on Milwaukee's Fiserv Arena ("Fiserv Forum's architecture wonderful inside, flawed outside," "The Killers, Violent Femmes rock first Fiserv Forum show, cover 'Laverne & Shirley' song," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) with more discussion of the interior architecture, which needs to be included in an update to the framework.

The writings on "transformational projects action planning" discuss both interior and exterior elements.  From "A wrinkle in thinking about the Transformational Projects Action Planning approach: Great public buildings aren't just about design, but what they do" (2022):

TPAPs should be implemented at multiple scales:

(1) neighborhood/district/city/county wide as part of a master plan;
(2) within functional elements of a master plan such as transportation, housing, or economic development; and
(3) within a specific project (e.g., how do we make this particular library or transit station or park or neighborhood "great"?); in terms of both
(4) architecture and design; and
(5) program/plan for what the functions within the building accomplish.

Lately, I have been mulling the issue of civic buildings as elements of the creation of neighborhood centers and community centers because of some examples in Salt Lake City and County where the final results are paltry compared to the investment, because a good framework wasn't employed (along with a failure to have a focused plan for the creation of neighborhood centers).

That's why a Philadelphia Inquirer article, "A new cafe at Kimmel is the first step to a better arts center," by Peter Dobrin, the paper's classical music critic is so great.  

Writing about the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts, which styles itself as an arts campus, the review addresses the power or failure of civic assets to push urban design, placemaking, and revitalization forward as part of the program for the building and site.

Note that the Inquirer is one of the only newspapers in North America that has an urban design writer, Inga Saffron, who is fabulous.  Like the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's music critic's review of the Arena, Dobrin is particularly insightful.  From the article:

The Kimmel Center was trumpeted as Philadelphia’s fifth public square — an 18-hour-per-day, seven-day-a-week arts center where you could show up anytime and find a concert or see a film.

But since it opened in 2001, the Kimmel has sent mixed signals about just how welcoming it really wants to be. Some of this has to do with the architecture — fortresslike from the outside, visually chilly on the inside — but also with the way the Kimmel has policed its spaces, which has sometimes been heavy-handed. On balance, though, this ostensibly public space has never lived up to its promise.

With the recent opening of a cafe in its lobby, Philadelphia’s major arts center is taking another run at inviting the city in.

Yes, I know: In one sense, a few dozen seats and a place to have a macchiato and a country-ham-on-baguette is a modest gesture. But quietly and convincingly, the cafe is already easing one of the arts center’s long-standing deficits. It has made the institution less opaque — metaphorically and physically.

 One of the missed opportunities of the original design was failing to recognize the arts center’s most prominent spot, the corner of the structure at Broad and Spruce Streets, as an invitation for transparency. One part of the structure, the enormous pile of masonry at Broad and Spruce, was extended west with a ticketing booth that blocked the view into the plaza. At its front door, the Kimmel had little to signal what goes on inside.

 ... It’s no accident that arts centers everywhere are becoming more sensitive to atmosphere and user experience. Competition for leisure time is stiff, and getting people to leave their houses, a challenge. The New York Philharmonic has renovated and renamed its home in Lincoln Center, and now the lobby of David Geffen Hall features a 50-foot-long digital screen showing video art during the day and streamed performances of Philharmonic concerts live.

The New York auditorium’s acoustics also got a makeover. The sound was crisper and more present than before in two concerts I heard there in January, and aficionados seem generally impressed.

But then there are those patrons who want to experience music more passively, sitting in the lobby sipping and chatting or scrolling social media as Beethoven streams digitally in the background.

... It’s worth noting that New York has a great deal more public space than Philadelphia — in Lincoln Center plaza, for starters. The Kimmel, with its huge glass dome, functions as a kind of roomy indoor-outdoor gathering space that’s rare here, heightening the importance of making it succeed.

... The symbolic value of the cafe as a space of access to all is important, especially now. The arts are still perceived by some as elitist, and arts attendance took a hit during the pandemic [.]

... The Kimmel has pursued a series of renovations to both its public and private spaces on a rolling basis since opening, both as part of routine maintenance and in response to financial pressures and other factors.

... The tale of the rooftop garden is a good metaphor for the push and pull of operating an arts center. It is a public space, but the institution is also expected to produce enough revenue to offset rental costs for its resident companies (a subject for another day).

The open-air garden atop the Perelman Theater once offered anyone who wanted it a great city view, an escape from the busy city. But the Kimmel, strapped for income, took down the trees and renovated the rooftop perch years ago so it could reap revenue from weddings and other events.  Gone was one of the city’s truly fun and surprising public spaces.

The Kimmel needs to evolve further to become the social hub the arts community urgently needs to reintroduce pandemic-weary patrons to the value of live, in-person performances. The New York Philharmonic renovation introduced fun to the place through the architecture, fabrics, and amenities.

Some lessons.

  • the building should be permeable (I am a big fan not just of large windows, but garage doors tht open up
  • the space should be active, open and "fun"
  • there should be connection between the interior and exterior of the building(s)
  • there should be connection between the exterior and the area beyond the site
  • arts buildings should promote art, not look like just another office building
  • outside public spaces should be open and active, not grim and closed off.

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