Posts Tagged ‘Charleston’

With the Clay Center in the background, a crowd gathered on Sunday for the dedication of the Mary Price Ratrie Greenspace.

May 16, 2010, Charleston, WV

Sunday was a big day for the City of Charleston.  An important new greenspace was dedicated and officially opened to the public.  Bands were playing, dignitaries of all sort enjoyed the afternoon sun, and kids climbed boulders and splashed in the water.  It was a picture-perfect day. 

The Mary Price Ratrie Greenspace is located a few blocks from the core of downtown Charleston and it fits in well with the high design of its neighbor across the street, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences.  The space was designed by the nationally-known firm, Andropogon Associates, of Philadelphia.  Andropogon is a leader in sustainable design and was designing “green” long before it was hip to be green.  As I would have expected, their design is heavy on the use of indigenous materials and bears the unmistakable mark of West Virginia.  Terraces suggest the mountains of our state and if there were any doubt, the project comes complete with boulders, springs, a pond, and even a stream.  

Everything a kid could want: boulders, rocks and water.

Attention to detail is a credit to the designer and contractor.

The requisite hardscape elements are also there – concrete pavement with brick accents complement similar pavements used at the Clay Center.  Stone retaining walls provide virtually unlimited seating and interesting views.  And there is plenty of elbow room.  No reason that the park couldn’t be used by lots of people without sacrificing personal space. 

Even a greenspace needs some hardscape.

One of the goals of the project was to bring some green to a section of town that was a sea of asphalt and concrete.  This place will definitely provide that and will serve as a beautiful gateway just off one of the busy interstate exit ramps into the city.  

How does it function as a public space?  If everyday could be like Sunday, it would be a tremendous success.  I can easily imagine symphony crowds mingling in the space before and after a concert.  And without at doubt there is an educational component that will attract school kids.  But I suspect that this greenspace is less about being a public gathering place and more about being a visual oasis and a symbol of Charleston’s commitment to developing good public spaces.

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.

The Capitol Market

Posted: February 15, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Remember when I made my first post back in January and how it was snowing outside my window?  I don’t think it’s stopped since.  Maybe starting a blog about public spaces in the middle of winter wasn’t such great timing.  Then again, who says good public spaces have to be outdoors?  Today we’ll visit the Capitol Market in Charleston, West Virginia. 

It started several years ago as a farmer’s market under the interstate, and during growing and harvest seasons, it still is.  As you can see from the photo below, there is an indoor market, which is actually a renovated train depot filled with shops and food vendors, and a full-service restaurant. 
The Capitol Market, Charleston, WV


But it’s not just the shops that make this a great place, although they certainly are the foundation.  There are also good design principles in play.

First, there’s the scale of the place.  In the design world, scale usually refers to the proportions of space as it relates to the people who use it and to the elements of the place itself.  For example, a café in a civic arena would likely be out of scale and its customers would feel uncomfortable.  At the Capitol Market, the scale feels right.  It’s confined enough to create a cozy, intimate environment, but the high ceilings and ample windows contribute to a feeling of openness. 

Then there’s the arrangement of the shops within the four walls of the old depot.  Notice in the photo below that the shops are staggered opposite each other.  This creates a meandering path of travel which accomplishes two things.  First, it slows you down.  It’s a subconscious thing.  A long, straight stretch of highway will encourage faster speeds.  Curves make you go slower.  At the same time, the staggered layout creates an element of surprise.  Even if you’ve been to the market before, there’s still a little anticipation of what might be beyond the next bend.  In a pedestrian environment, this helps create an enjoyable, casual stroll. 


One more thing.  In the picture below, can you identify another element of good spaces?  Yeah, there are “rooms”.  Not much more than tables and chairs, yet they’ve been placed in a way that give the customers their own little places to sit back, relax, and watch the world (people) go by.

Now to be sure, the space would not be as successful if it were not for the shops, which is why you go there in the first place.  But once you’re there, it’s a great place to escape winter, if only for a while.