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Animation at Harvard

By Cannon Ivers
Harvard Plaza has a new look, aimed at increasing usage and activity. This addresses intelligently the need to create platforms for temporary activities.

Shakespeare tells us that ‘all the world’s a stage’ and increasingly our public spaces act as platforms for ephemeral performances, installations, marketing exhibits and celebrations. The great urbanist William H. Whyte put this simply, ‘People attract people.’ However, as the number of events and overlay activities – elements that were added after the original design – increases, one can’t help but wonder if we are reaching a point of oversaturation and hyper-stimulation. How much programme should be packed into the spaces we collectively inhabit and is there still the need for quiet, contemplative space? Or, should our spaces reflect the ever-changing, instant gratification model of social media that leaves little room for independent reflection and quietude? The answer, of course, is not clear cut. There are numerous examples where overlay performances, installations and celebrations have had a transformative effect on the space and the surrounding community, in some instances generating profitable revenue. In other instances, it feels like one overlaid object too many, leaving people overwhelmed and yearning for a quiet patch of grass under the shade of a tree.

As a result of my research at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I believe that our recent attraction as landscape architects to designing for flexibility finds its genesis with Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam by West 8. This shift away from the fixed ‘landscape as art’ spaces of Schwartz and Walker that West 8 ushered in, may have been prompted by the Pompidou Centre in Paris in the late 1970s.

There, the design team opted to give over half the competition site in a dense part of Paris to provide a public stage. The more recent phenomenon of ‘pop-ups’ and tactile urbanism, stems from the economic decline in 2008, prompted by the success of Park(ing) Day that launched in San Francisco in 2005. Since that time, our cities have been subject to myriad overlays, cultural installations, outdoor cinemas and yoga sessions.

While at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, I developed my fieldwork and observations into a number of case studies that examine the spatial qualities, the use of the space and the quantity 
and variety of overlaid objects. Twenty-seven case studies form the core of a book that I am publishing with Birkhauser in the autumn of 2017, loosely titled ‘Space for Change: The Culture of Curated Landscapes’. The book will also include essays from practitioners and theorists including Charles Waldheim, James Corner and Adriaan Geuze. The case study presented here, which 
will feature in the book, is of a plaza at Harvard University designed by STOSS.  

The plaza sits to the north of the historic Harvard Yard, at a confluence of pedestrian movement which is the busiest intersection on the campus. The original layout of the space consisted of a nondescript lawn bisected by footpaths aligning with desire lines, a strategy that can be seen across the entire campus. The space lacked character or focus, excluding the now-revered Tanner Fountain that Peter Walker implemented in 1984. 

The location of the space, its spatial arrangement and limited public offering, resulted in a space of transit; something one passed through to get from one place to another without taking time to linger. This was also the sentiment some planners at Harvard University had about the historic Harvard Yard. As a result, in 2009 the campus started an initiative called ‘Common Spaces’, charged with ‘fostering a stronger sense of community across Harvard by providing opportunities to share space and experiences.’

The first initiative for the Common Spaces team was the introduction of movable chairs following advice from Fred Kent and Project for Public Spaces. The chairs encourage people to linger in Harvard Yard rather than simply passing through it. The non-intrusive provision of colourful movable chairs made a noticeable contribution to the atmosphere of the Yard, as people attracted people and a sense of ‘something going on’ materialised. Building on the successful experiment of the Yard, the Common Spaces team began to experiment with additional ways in which the existing plaza space could be re-imagined. It was determined early on that the space needed to be revamped, redesigned and re-purposed to provide a space for campus-wide use and gatherings.  

Over a ten month period, as a permanent design for the space was being considered, the Common Spaces team introduced a series of temporary installations to test the popularity and probability of potential programmatic elements that could be incorporated into the design for the permanent space. The initial temporary overlays included an ice rink, trees and bamboo in movable planters, pop-up entertainment within a large tent and food trucks, all of which took place on the existing lawn surface. Although the existing space was nothing more than a threadbare grass space with criss-crossing footpaths, the programmatic overlays successfully encouraged people to linger in the space, which created a critical mass, transforming the plaza from a place of transit to a gathering space.

As the programmed cultural overlays picked up momentum, the Common Spaces team expanded to include a dedicated employee associated with the Office of the Arts at the University, acknowledging that a creative curation of programme would be needed to sustain the life of the new plaza space once implemented. As temporary events in the plaza space became more popular, student requests to perform, protest and organise added a fresh dimension to the programme. These student initiatives activated the space at no cost to organise, aside from the hourly fee for the programme coordinator. After the 10-month testing period, a list of successful programmatic overlays was written into the brief that would guide the design and implementation of the permanent space. 

The design firm STOSS won the commission to re-design the space, known now as ‘The Plaza’, which was completed in 2013. Its design responded to pedestrian desire lines between campus facilities and rigorously explored multiple configurations of potential programme overlays to activate the space.

STOSS developed a notational language inspired by Lawrence Halprin’s Motation studies and William H. Whyte’s research at Seagram’s Plaza, to choreograph how the space would be used and activated over a 24-hour period, as well as through the changing seasons. The final design consisted of a large flexible open space on the western end of the Plaza with a strong seating edge to the south benefiting from the shade of the mature trees in the adjacent Harvard Yard. To the north, intimate areas with seating beneath Ginkgo and sumac trees, with fern understorey planting, offset the openness of the plaza. According to Chris Reed of STOSS, the day-to-day was the most important consideration for the design team. The space had to accommodate large events such as ice-skating and graduation ceremonies, but more importantly, it needed to be lively and vibrant on any day of the week. The eastern third of the Plaza is the anchor of the site and is activated daily by food trucks and people socialising and relaxing on clustered seating and picnic tables. The pedestrian thoroughfare linking Harvard Yard to the Josep Lluís Sert Science Centre holds the edge of this active space naturally, which leaves the open area of the Plaza to be programmed accordingly.  

The strong seating edge to the south is the signature element of the scheme, both for its design execution and for its unexpected contribution when the Plaza is not programmed. Complex timber and concrete benches, beautifully crafted using cutting-edge fabrication technology, create a variety of ergonomic configurations that allow users to be creative in the way they use the benches. This sculpted complexity also acts as a foil for the expansive and minimal arrangement of the Plaza.

Without the sculptural qualities, scale, quantity, complexity and sensual character of the benches, the Plaza would risk being pedestrian and bland. This is particularly the case when the benches 
are not occupied. By assuming the role of an aesthetically pleasing ‘sculpted object’, the benches are interesting to look at and admire rather than being reduced to an empty bench that does nothing but clutter the space when not occupied by people. The timber has taken on a rich patina, which when hit by the setting sun in the evening, coupled with the sound of live music in the background, makes the atmosphere delightful.
The decision to have a flexible open area was the result of a requirement for a large tent that would be assembled and disassembled on a regular basis to facilitate campus events and ceremonies. The final design included inbuilt foundations for the tent and pop-ups for water and power. The tent, with a maximum capacity of 1000 people, is rented by the university. The flexible open area of The Plaza hosts a number of repeat programmed events. A farmer’s market is held every Tuesday throughout the summer and the university does not charge the organisers because the market fosters a sense of community, both within and outside the campus.

In the winter, the Common Spaces team erects an ice-skating rink that is free to use and charges $5 for skates, which goes towards covering the cost of the rink and its operation. It’s a valuable programmatic overlay that stitches the campus community together, whilst providing a much needed activity in the winter months when programming the space is more challenging.  Project for Public Spaces also created a winter programme, which introduced fire pits and curling mats. The firepits are supervised by a member of the fire department and pre-packaged S’mores, 
a staple American campfire snack, can be bought from the ice skating kiosk. Interboro Partners 
was commissioned to design additional seating elements to contribute to the winter overlay, 
which was implemented in 2015.  

The backbone of the programmatic calendar is the food trucks, which occupy the eastern edge of the space. The first food truck arrives at 8:30am and with it come people and healthy commotion. The tables and chairs are rarely empty. Throughout the day, up to five food trucks are parked on the Plaza until 7pm and are charged $50 a day by the university. The Common Spaces website provides a timetable for the food trucks, and a live web-cam provides a way for users to engage with the Common Spaces initiative.  

With the design of flexible, programmable spaces that require open areas to accommodate large gatherings or repeat events, careful consideration is necessary to ensure the space is not empty, banal and uninspiring when not in use. The space also needs to afford a variety of events that are both surprising and predictable with a sense of anticipation and excitement. The Plaza manages this balance well because of strong design execution and strategic programme planning throughout the design process. In particular, the benches and planting provide a degree of complexity and seasonal variation to capture one’s attention when the large open space is without programme or events. Lastly, the Plaza benefits from a steady footfall of pedestrian traffic and a student body that participates in the performance-based activation of the space. Tanner Fountain plays an important role in providing informal seating and play in the shade of a magnificent oak tree on the edge of the space where users can be spectators; watching other users as ‘performers’.This edge condition is of fundamental importance in the design of public space and is often where people want to sit and rest in public space. Jan Gehl explains the edge condition in his book Life Between Buildings. 

The increased pressure on public spaces, demands that our squares, streets and parks are renewed and refreshed as a cultural overlay to the urban infrastructure; programmed and changed as an ephemeral stage of human encounter and provocation. The dynamism of urban spaces in cities like London, New York, Barcelona, Paris, Chicago, Montreal, Boston and Copenhagen demonstrate a richness of programmability, which becomes the lynchpin of public life and the catalyst for community cohesion. Subsequently, new energy is consistently breathed into these spaces to stave off the quiet social decay of static monotony, or, put simply, space without change. Jan Gehl summed up his 40+ years of field work and observation with a beautifully simple quote: ‘First Life, then Space, then Buildings.’ The question for us as designers, is how much of the life should we be curating with objects and activities, and how much should come as the result of open, un-programmed space?

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