A Room with a View

Posted: January 19, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

You have to admit, that even if you’ve never been to Pullman Square in Huntington, West Virginia, the glowing-lights photo makes the place look really inviting.  A great snapshot doesn’t necessarily mean the space really works for people, but in this case, the evidence is in the photo itself.  First of all, you’ll notice people are occupying the space.  And in this particular photo, there isn’t a big event taking place; there’s no special reason for people to be there other than they want to be.  All very well and good, but so what?  All that space could have been used for retail or parking, right?

What’s interesting to note is that Pullman Square is a private development.  I’m sure there is a “green space” requirement that the developers had to meet, but they could have met that in a more perfunctory way.  The fact that they created a space that actually attracts people says something about the value of the space. The developers know it’s not wasted space, but helps create a more pleasurable shopping experience.  (There is a lot more to say about the value of good public space but I’ll save that for another time.)

Why does the space work?  For one, the designers understand human behavior and they understand how to give people the opportunity to do what they want.  They’re also smart enough not to screw it up with good ideas.   How can good ideas be bad?  Allow me a short digression.

Let’s say your community has been given the opportunity to develop a piece of property for some type of public use.  A committee is formed to come up with a plan for the property that benefits the rest of the community.  Good ideas spring forth.  An interactive fountain, a skating rink, a farmer’s market, a stage, art displays, memorials, flagpoles, and so on.  They’re all good ideas so you start to figure out how to cram all of the good ideas into the limited space.  And if you’re not careful, you’ll get a space that doesn’t allow people to do what they really want to do. 

What people really want to do is to sit back, relax, talk, and watch other people.  (Yes, I know there are exceptions.  They fall under my “seat belt” maxim.  People are usually safer wearing seat belts, but you occasionally hear stories about people surviving a car crash because they weren’t wearing a seat belt.  So wear your seat belt and don’t nit-pick about exceptions.)

This is what Pullman Square does really well.   Take a look at the illustration below.

First, let’s look at the big room, the large space formed by the two “walls” of planters to the left and right, the “wall” at the rear formed by the pavilion, and the “wall” in front formed by an actual wall and benches.  While these walls do form a small physical barrier, they function much more effectively as a psychological barrier.  They define the overall space and make it clear that the space inside the walls is special.  It draws you in.

What’s inside the big room at Pullman Square is really what makes it such a great space.  There are smaller rooms.  Rooms for solitary contemplation, rooms for couples to share ice cream, and rooms for teens to hang out and do nothing.  A quick study of the photo and you’ll see what makes a room a room.  First, a place to sit in relative privacy.  Usually, a “wall” to your back.  The best rooms also have a “ceiling”, which in this case, is a tree canopy.  Perhaps most importantly, each room has a view.

Of course the focal point is the fountain (primary views illustrated by the blue arrows).   It’s just your normal, traditional fountain, nothing too fancy.  But its visual and auditory qualities give you something at which to gaze.  Turn your head to the left or to the right or across the street to the stores and the scene changes (illustrated by the green arrows).  Check out the skater dude and his tats.  Or the students pretending to study.  There’s your doctor and her husband going to a movie.  You can observe all manner of humanity without leaving the comfort of your little private room.

As a landscape architect, I could talk about all kinds of design principles that have been nicely executed at Pullman Square.  Things like scale, proportion, repetition, rhythm, variety and so on.  But it all starts with an understanding of the needs of people and not trying to do too much.  Observe, study, accommodate.  It’s not really that hard.  Feel free to try it at home.

  1. Taylor McNamara says:

    What an interesting space! It makes me want to visit Huntington, and see it live!

  2. […] together. Joe just started up a new blog about public spaces in the West Virginia region, called ‘Spaces for People,’ and on 01.19.10 posted a welcome rumination on the success of  the Pullman Square development in […]

  3. Nice piece, Joe! I posted mention of it at the beta site of a new arts and culture blog West Virginia web magazine I have been toying with: http://westvirginiaville.com. (Look for it below the lead welcoming feature). Keep ’em coming!

  4. Phil Evans says:

    Thanks for this post about Pullman Square. People in Huntington waited over 30 years for someone to to develop that urban renewal property and honestly, we’re fortunate some of the proposed development never took place. Pullman got it right, and blends nicely into the existing downtown.

  5. April Plank says:

    Joe- great job! Im interested in learning more. It’s great that you put a spin on it to help those of us with the lack of landscape design knowledge to “see” the flow of the surroundings in which you work so hard to build work for us!

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