Sunday, November 29

Why children like small things

Presuming that cities are meant to be used by people, it stands to reason that their elements ought to be scaled to human comfort, movement, and legibility.

Rather than attempt to describe what architects define as human scale (or at least how I understand it), it may be quicker to pull out two photos I took in Albany, New York. These two places are a short walk from each other.

Although there are technically humans attempting to coexist with this place, they doubtlessly feel as if they are walking across the canvas of a Piet Mondrian painting, ruining its elegant simplicity with the awkwardness of their human bodies. And it's such a long way to walk with nothing to do.

This alley, on the other hand, is one of the streets that the people who work over there go to voluntarily for lunch. They apparently enjoy being here. It has nothing to do with one being new and the other old. It mostly is a reflection of scale.

The tendency to feel at home in places that are designed to fit our bodies seems to be hard-wired. Children are just as much drawn to spaces that are sized according to their own smaller perspective. Over the weekend I visited the Winterthur estate, the museum outside of Wilmington, Delaware that houses collections from the Dupont family. A couple of years ago, landscape architects created a garden on the property designed exclusively for children called the Enchanted Woods. Like J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy world of the Shire, built around three-foot tall hobbits, the Enchanted Forest has many traditional forms whimsically sized to be experienced by short people. A bird's nest is blown up in proportion as a kind of tree fort , while the cottages and benches are shrunken.

I brought this up to my wife, who knows all about small children, and she understood exactly why they love this place. In a world built for adults, the Enchanted Woods is a place where they can navigate forms that are familiar yet still somewhat alien to them in a much more secure way. This is the same reason why they play-act as adults all the time but need to have smaller tools and settings. Check out any toy store for the miniature lawn mower or playhouse. It's the phenomenon of coziness. It just fits.

I don't think we outgrow this as adults. It just gets a little bit bigger. Many outdoor places today are built around the needs of automobiles, with buildings pushed away from each other and aesthetics meant to capture our attention in 4 seconds as we speed by. In the same vein, they are built for economies of scale or politics of intimidation, such as warehouse shopping experiences that exist for the purpose of maximizing the efficiency of highway trucking networks or the massive squares at the center of every communist bloc city built in the last century. There's a reason why we gravitate away from these places. They just don't fit.


Stephen Gross said...

Although the French are usually very good at constructing public places, they did a crummy job in Montpellier. Take a look at "Place de Thessalie" for an example:,+France+polygone&sll=43.601651,3.895683&sspn=0.069613,0.176296&ie=UTF8&hq=polygone&hnear=Montpellier,+France&ll=43.607874,3.892432&spn=0.004187,0.011019&z=17

Anonymous said...

I have to get to Albany, it looks so beautiful.

Thank you for the pictures.

Eric Orozco said...

Great insight.

While I was an intern architect in Austin, I worked for a crazy sustainability evangelist. He made me look at the ways humans habitate space and made me come up with the presumed minimal amount of space needed to do certain activities. (A space for sleep I assumed to be 25 sq. ft. and so on). For a while it was an exercise to find your claustrophobic limits. Then he saw my forlon dimensioned sketches and he showed me a book on "tiny homes" ...and I had to change my thinking. I realized that living in a small space is comfortable so long as a diversity psychological needs are met in concert. Remembering the joy as a child to find a space suited to one's body may be a perfect way to introduce this design challenge, Daniel.

It is important to small space design not to lose one's bearing in the world, (e.g. people need views to the outdoors at their sitting eye-level). What space I need is not a matter of spatial needs, so much as creating and preserving relationships. Humans need very subtle psychological accommodations balancing the need for privacy/enclosure without inserting social distance - blank walls, for example. Our buildings are often not sized right for our actual psychological needs, because they ignore these needs in favor of a showroom living room, for example.

The lesson from that architect: To find the appropriate amount of space and limit one's spatial footprint, don't ask, "What is the minimum space that I need to live sustainably?"...but rather ask: "What is the place that is comfortable for what I want to do and how I actually live?" Its a funny feng shui that will key many architects to design places to human scale.

Daniel Nairn said...

Eric, thanks for lending your design experience to this question. It's one thing to feel whether a place "fits" or not, and quite another, as an architect, to design it that way.

Stephan, I'd never heard of the Place de Thessalie but it's nice to know that the French tradition formal plazas is alive and well. Looking at streetview pictures from the very center, I agree that it seems too spacious to me. Maybe some more trees could help.

Bill said...

Looking at that large space in Albany, at the top, I began thinking about how to make it better. I have zero expertise in this field of study but if it were broken up by trees, paths and "things to do" it might work. Perhaps a small building as an outdoor restaurant/cafe- something that would attract people and make them feel comfortable in speaking with one another. As it is now the "personal space" the average person in that square would want must be ten square feet or more.

rob said...

While I don't really disagree too much with the overall gist of what you're saying, I think you're being unfair to the Empire State Plaza.

I've only been once, a couple summers ago on my way to the Adirondacks. When I realized we were driving past Albany, I asked if we could stop and see the plaza, because I'd heard so many awful things about it that I had to see this horror for myself. When I walked onto the plaza both my companions (who I'd been emphasizing the awfulness of the plaza to) and I were pleasantly surprised. Double rows of trees lined both sides of the plaza, and dozens of people were resting on the benches and long walls beneath them. A couple different groups of kids were skateboarding. People were coming and going from the steps of the art museum. It wasn't DuPont Circle or Times Square or anything, but it was lively and occupied. Certainly not the barren and wind-swept emptiness I'd been expecting. (And, frankly, I thought the architecture was gorgeous, but your mileage will vary on that, based on one's appreciation or lack thereof for brutalism).

Anyways, I know that's just one day and one anecdote, and the history of the place (the destruction of the existing neighborhood fabric and the elimination of the tie to the riverfront) is certainly disturbing, but the majority of the comments on the PPS's entry on the Plaza seem to confirm my impression. And here's an alternate shot of the Plaza...

Daniel Nairn said...

Alright, I'm willing to grant three positive things about the plaza.

1. It's been there for a while, so it's already instilled itself into people's memories and the identity of Albany. My father lived right nearby while it was being built and he told me that most people generally hated it at first (esp. the egg), but anything can grow on you with enough time. No community wants to live in a constant state of regret.

2. It's a convenient place for very large outdoor events. I recognize that this doesn't necessarily have to be totalitarian rallies and such - certainly in a free country the Stalinist ideology of the design can be repurposed for concerts, etc. There's something cool about that. They have to be very large though. Even an event of 100s gets swallowed and loses energy.

3. There is some Artistic (capital A) value to the plaza. The following comment from the PPS entry captures my opinion well:

"It's an amazing and grotesque and brutal example of modern architecture. I love going there when there are no events and few people. It is quiet, and it feels like it's all yours. You feel like you are in a library or a museum. The plaza was clearly intended to be a work of art and not a living space."

I can also attest to this other-worldly feeling, esp. when the sun casts perfectly geometric shadows over the vast flat open space. It's almost as if you've wandered into an abstract world and its easy to lose yourself.

Of course, it has to be almost empty to experience this, so only a small number of people really get to benefit.

The trouble with this, and starchitecture in general in my opinion, is that most of the people using the site are less interested in a transcendent aesthetic experience than just a pleasant backdrop upon which to live their life. I grant that it may be thought-provoking and even profound at times, but a better architectural presence would enhance and mix with the thoughts and feelings you are already experiencing rather than demand the attention for itself.