7 Architecture Firms Ripping Up the Rulebook on Public Spaces

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Architects and designers are increasingly mindful of the value of public space and its role in the development of our buildings, cities and culture, especially as we begin to measure the impact of public space from New York’s High Line to Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. Pioneers in the profession are proving that architecture can respond to, shape and transform these civic areas while helping to create community and inspire change.

The following examples of public plazas from around the world were created by a variety of different designers to respond to unique environmental, social and urban conditions. Though they share a common typology, they possess widely unique programs, contextual surroundings, and varying degrees of vegetation. While they employ different forms and options for circulation and contemplation, they also orient individuals to views, establish hard and loose boundaries, and celebrate the histories, conditions and culture of each place. Whether for civic empowerment or a little rest and relaxation, these plazas embody new, dynamic ways to think about architecture and public life.

Arts Plaza by Spillman Farmer Architects, Easton, Penn.

A raw, open-air space for the arts, this plaza at Lafayette College includes a distinctive outdoor theater. The space hosts diverse programs including group musical performances, visual art exhibits, and performance art. The project is an urban “unfill” where only essential elements of the previous, original auto repair facility are left.

Brooklyn Museum Entry and Plaza by Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects), New York, NY.

Golden Gate Bridge Plaza by EHDD, Surfacedesign, Inc, and Jensen Architects, San Francisco

This plaza was part of the transformation of the former Presidio military base into an active public space connecting the Bay Area and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It was created as a hybrid space that is both civic and educational.

Erie Street Plaza by Stoss Landscape Urbanism, Milwaukee

This project is a small urban plaza in the historic Third Ward district of Milwaukee. It is the final link in a series of public space activators along the Milwaukee Riverwalk. Flexible programming, hybrid ecology and holistic sustainability were all important elements of the plaza design.

SUPERKILEN by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), Topotek 1, and Superflex, Copenhagen, Denmark

Superkilen is a half-a-mile-long urban space in Denmark. Within an ethnically diverse neighborhood, the contemporary plaza and park celebrates the neighborhood’s multicultural heritage while uniting people together. It is comprised of three main zones: the red square for sports activities, the green park as a grassy children’s playground, and the black market as a food market and picnic area.

Ribbons by Cliff Garten Studio, San Francisco

Ribbons is a landscape sculpture and plaza design for the Art and Architecture Program of the General Services Administration in San Francisco. A matrix of paving, seating, fountains and planting are inserted into the existing courtyard. The design carefully straddles a line between preservation and adaptive reuse.

Metropol Parasol by J. MAYER H., Seville, Spain

This project explores the potential of the Plaza de la Encarnacion. This urban space in Seville allows a range of activities from leisure to commerce. Large parasols emerge from the site, creating a contemporary landmark in the city.

Dilworth Park by KieranTimberlake, Philadelphia

This plaza design was intended to completely transform the prior plaza into a new world-class front door for Philadelphia’s City Hall. The project establishes the plaza at street level while surrounding the space with a green landscape veil. It also develops a connection from the plaza to transportation below while simultaneously improving access.

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Feature image: SUPERKILEN by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), Topotek 1, and Superflex

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