Archive for November, 2010

Kick back at the Purple Fiddle

Posted: November 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

Ever suffer from mental overload?  That’s where I am right now.  A little too much studying, too much thinking.  I’ve been reading about William H. (Holly) Whyte, the noted analyzer of public spaces.  So much good stuff came out of his studies and I’m trying to sort through it.  I’ll tell you more about it in a couple of weeks.  For now, join me for a cup of coffee at the Purple Fiddle.

You get your first hint that the Purple Fiddle is a little different before you get inside the front door.

The Purple Fiddle is not a public space.  It’s a private establishment — part cafe, part coffee shop and part performance theater — in downtown Thomas, West Virginia.  So, yes, it’s a stretch to include it in a blog about public spaces, but I’m doing so for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s just a cool place to hang out and I like it.  But if you ask the question “Why?” (which, by the way is the best question to ask about anything) we’ll learn lessons that can very easily be applied to outdoor public spaces.

The Purple Fiddle has a Bohemian feel to it.  There’s nothing fancy about the place.  A gigantic deer head (fake, I think) greets you outside and an old safe serves as the billboard announcing the upcoming music schedule.  Inside, antiques, historic photos, snapshots, quilts and an assortment of other junk adorn the walls.  Seating ranges from chairs to bar stools, to church pews and even an old wooden wheelchair.  I’m not sure if there are any two tablecloths alike in the entire place.  And the workers — well, let’s just say they’re a bunch of cool cats.

Inside, the place is full of interesting stuff. Although technically it's one big room, the "wall" to the left subdivides the space into smaller rooms, while keeping the whole space open.

So why is it a good place to hang out?  From my description, you should be able to tell that there’s a lot of interesting stuff at the Purple Fiddle.  Your eyes and your mind will not get bored.  Heck, even the collection of refrigerator magnets will keep you occupied  for more than a few minutes.

Lesson 1:  Make your public space interesting with artwork and unusual plants, maybe old artifacts. Looking at the chalk writing on the safe makes me wonder if there couldn’t be interactive art in public spaces.  Give kids some chalk, something to write on that can be easily cleaned off and unleash their creativity.

When you go inside the Purple Fiddle you can see that it’s one big room.  Well, yes and no.  The room is subdivided without the use of real walls.  Well, yes and no.  There is sort of a wall, but it’s mainly a psychological divide.  It serves to break up the main room and creates another room.  Cross through the opening and see that the second room is actually divided into more, smaller rooms by a bannister here, an elevated platform there.  It makes it feel like you can find your own private corner, maybe a place that becomes your favorite room.  And yet you can still see everyone.

Lesson 2:  Think rooms. Create spaces within spaces.  Walls can be psychological.

The smaller rooms have their own personality and give patrons a sense of privacy.

I’ve stopped by the Purple Fiddle once for a cup of coffee.  On my last visit, everyone was there for lunch.

Lesson 3:  Food and drink are great attractors. We’ve got to figure out how to get food and drink into our public spaces.  It’s critical.

Outside is another place to hang out, with a full range of seating options.

Every time I stop by the Purple Fiddle, I enjoy myself.  During a recent visit there was a group of ladies sitting near our table — obviously having a good time over lunch — who weren’t shy about starting a conversation with me, an introverted stranger.  (No, it wasn’t like that.  All very innocent.) Elsewhere, there were people younger and older than I.  Besides the friendly group of ladies, there were couples and other small groups.  The Purple Fiddle is a very sociable place.

Bonus Lesson:  Make your public space sociable. Ok, that’s not much of a lesson point; it’s more like a goal.  But how do you achieve something so intangible?

Your space becomes sociable when you attract a wide variety of people.  You attract them by implementing Lessons 1, 2 and 3, as well as other lessons that we haven’t even talked about.

The Purple Fiddle is unpretentious, which adds to the convivial atmosphere.  A few years ago I had the opportunity to tour the then-new Federal Courthouse in Charleston.  It’s an awesome space but it is the opposite of convivial.  I felt self-conscious hearing my own footsteps in the building lobby.  It’s the last place I would want to go to chat with friends.  (This, by the way, is by design.  A Federal Courthouse is a very serious place and the architectural design reflects its solemnity.)  Our public spaces need to be a place of fun.  There should be an element of whimsy to allow us to relax and enjoy the moment.

Want whimsy?  Need some fun?  Want to be among sociable people?  We can develop our public spaces to provide all of that.  Or take a trip to Thomas and stop by the Purple Fiddle.

“It is a fact of great architecture that all great buildings have a great architect, but they also have a great client.  The client who is understanding, but also very demanding.” — Allan Greenburg, from the PBS special Benjamin Latrobe: America’s First Architect.

I happened to catch the fascinating Benjamin Latrobe special a couple of months ago (you can still find the entire show at  Some of the best architecture of our nation’s capitol was designed by Latrobe, but the opportunity for even greater architecture was thwarted by a client (President Monroe and Congress) who didn’t understand.  Earlier, Thomas Jefferson, a client who obviously understood architecture, pushed Latrobe to the greatness for which he is known (at least by architectural historians).

There is a similar correlation in creating great public spaces.  It isn’t enough to hire a great landscape architect.  The client needs to understand design issues.  The client needs to understand human behavior.  The client needs to understand value and not just cost.   If the designer and the client both understand the important issues of creating public spaces, the likelihood of creating a great public space increases tremendously.

What are the issues?  I’ve been talking about some of them for several months, but the Project for Public Space has identified four core qualities necessary for a successful public space.

First, the space must be accessible, and not just in the ADA sense.  The space must be easy to get to and easy to move around in.  Second, it must have activities.  Things for people to do, a reason to go to the space.  The space must be comfortable and inviting.  Not just physically, but psychologically.  As we’ve talked about before, the perception of safety is a big part of this. There needs to be a certain level of sociability.  A successful public space is where you to go to meet friends or simply be around other people.

Of course its easy to say that a public space must have these qualities, but it is much more difficult to address the specific challenges of each space’s geographic, contextual and demographic issues.  It’s not just a matter of selecting attractive benches or designing a grand water feature.  There are complex issues of human psychology and behavior.  In a future post, I’ll break down these four core qualities and look at them more closely.

Of course the project designer should know all of this.  If the client also understands the issues and pushes the designer, a great public space might be the result.


In case you missed the headlines a few weeks ago, the city of Charleston (WV) has been selected as one of six state capitals to receive assistance from the EPA to design a “green” public space project.  Charleston’s project is Slack Plaza. 

What a great opportunity for the city.

Slack Plaza has struggled as a public space.  Many ideas have been kicked around and soon the city will have the benefit of professional designers and planners, as well as the EPA team, to help determine the optimum solution for Slack Plaza.

The EPA’s goal is to “help state capitals develop an implementable vision of distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods that incorporate innovative green building and green infrastructure strategies.”   Sustainable design, in other words. (Learn more about the EPA program here.)

What a tremendous challenge for the city.

Some aspects – the innovative green building and green infrastructure strategies, for example – will be easier to achieve than others.  The technical stuff such as recycling rainwater, dealing with surface pollution, and so on, while not necessarily easy, will essentially be an engineering challenge.  Energy efficiency will be important and don’t be surprised if solar-powered lights are part of the plan.  Local products will be used, as well as recycled materials.  Trees and other vegetation will be selected for their low-maintenance characteristics.   There will no doubt be opportunities to develop public education programs so that we can all understand the importance of preserving our limited resources.

And it’s all good.

Another of the EPA’s stated goals is to “create and enhance interesting, distinctive neighborhoods that have multiple social, economic, and environmental benefits,” which is why this program is perfect for Slack Plaza.  It is known for its multiple social, economic and environmental characteristics.  While the potential exists to develop these characteristics into benefits, it will be no easy task.

It’s hard because it requires working with and understanding people.  Diverse people with diverse needs and desires.   Diverse people who demand different things from their public spaces.   Diverse people who may be challenged to share their world with others.

The key to developing a successful public space is recognizing the needs of people.  The key to developing a sustainable public space goes far beyond the technical green solutions.  By definition, a public space requires people.  There will be plenty of people at the ribbon cutting ceremony.  Will they be there a month later?  A year later?

After ten years, I hope the rain gardens and solar-powered lights are not the most talked about aspect of Slack Plaza.  I hope Slack Plaza becomes one of the great public spaces in the country.  If people go to Slack Plaza to eat a sandwich at noon, or take in a weekend art show, or meet friends for coffee on a warm summer evening, Charleston will have developed a public space that is truly sustainable.

What a great opportunity for the city.