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.
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.
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.
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.
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.