Archive for March, 2010

I like to talk about design.  About how the designer’s hand manipulates the built environment to direct views, create rooms, and provide various amenities and pleasant distractions.   A thoughtful approach usually leads to good results.

Ruffner Park

Ruffner Park is an example of achieving a lot by doing little.

But there are also places that seem to have grown into something special quite naturally.  One such place is Ruffner Park, the little known sanctuary just a few blocks from the State Capitol in Charleston.

It’s not that the park wasn’t designed.  It was.   A small plaza memorializes the Kanawha Riflemen and serves as the focal point of the park, and a sidewalk from Kanawha Boulevard leads directly to the plaza.  There is also a simple, arcing walkway from one end of the park to the other that is obviously the result of someone’s thoughtful design years ago.  So are the soldiers of pin oaks standing sentry along the Boulevard. 

The entry walkway enhances the memorial as the focal point of the park.

It’s a very understated design.  Nothing elaborate.  No need for water features or seat walls or fancy pavements.  It’s enough to be able to find solitude under the giant sycamores.  It’s enough to watch the squirrels forage for acorns.  It’s enough to enjoy the view of the river with the hills in the background.   There are people to watch, too – walkers, runners, and bikers – especially on a nice sunny day after a long winter.

Across from Ruffner Park is a backdrop of the Kanawha River and the south hills of Charleston.

Towering trees provide a cathedral-like overhead plane.

Let’s talk about some design principles.  First, there is the formal, symmetric design in a very natural setting.  The balance works.  It’s restful.  The arcing walkway is perfect for such a setting and its curved lines add to the peaceful feeling.  The sidewalk from the plaza to the boulevard provides a visual exit and comforts the psyche that prefers a sense of order.  And then there are the trees.  The towering oaks and sycamores provide a cathedral-like overhead plane and help create the feeling that Ruffner Park is a sanctuary.

I tried to track down the history of Ruffner Park but couldn’t piece it together with a great deal of certainty.  It’s been around for many years and I don’t know why it hasn’t been more developed.  But I’m glad it hasn’t.  Sometimes it’s best to let spaces grow naturally.

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Snow at Panera

Yeah, it's still snowing.

“It has been said that Americans are not a ‘plaza people’ as are the Italians or the French – the implication is that plazas do not fit our lifestyle and therefore we should not build them.  This is demonstrably not true.  The problem has arisen only when plazas did not relate to any activity, when they were simply vast or sterile places designed only as foregrounds for buildings or with no functional reason for their being.  We do not accumulate any longer vast throngs of people to pray or to hear presidential announcements.  The radio and television have taken care of that.  What we do need are small-scaled plazas as outdoor living rooms, places to see and be seen.  Our plazas need to be lived in.”  – – Lawrence Halprin, as quoted in Landscape Architecture Magazine and New York New York. 

Lawrence Halprin, one of America’s most revered landscape architects, passed away last year.  His concepts and designs changed the way we think about our outdoor spaces.

The quote is from 1968.  You can add the internet and smart phones to his comment about radio and television.  The more cyber-connected we become, the less physically connected we are.  (Yesterday in Panera’s I observed a family of four at a table, three of the four heads were bowed, as if in prayer.  As I walked by I saw that they were all thumb typing on their phones.) 

What do you think?  Are we a plaza people?  Can you give me an example of a good plaza and why you like it?  Because this is a regional blog, you get bonus points if you can give me an example in or around West Virginia.