Among the resources provided by the Project for Public Spaces is a useful comparison of “design-centered” spaces and “place-centered” spaces. The page has a side-by-side comparison that I highly recommend checking out, but the basic idea is that design-centered spaces are all about isolated points while place-centered spaces are all about cohesion.
In other words, design-centered spaces focus on architecture, single buildings, and expertly drafted projects. The result is familiar:
[A design-centered approach] creates places where the “look but don’t touch” mentality is in force. In order to maintain a space that is “neat, clean, and empty,” excessive rules are implemented to protect the design, which ironically leaves them pockmarked with “Please Don’t…” signage.
By contrast, a place-centered approach acknowledges the need for good architecture, looks for partnerships, and most importantly considers the current surroundings. It also,
…creates places that are accessible and inclusive. Form supports function, so creating a “cutting edge” design is secondary to ensuring that the site will actually serve the people who use it. People who do use the space feel a sense of ownership, which leads to self-managed and self-programmed spaces.
Examples of both kinds of space abound in Provo. The Hines Mansion, which I discussed in a post earlier today, seems particularly to suffer from a design-centered approach. Though the mansion predates the surrounding infrastructure, the building only really succeeds as a charming space when considered in isolation; in the context of its surroundings it’s a terrible place for a bed and breakfast and a failure of space.
The city is more to blame for that problem than the people behind the Hines Mansion, but it nevertheless illustrates how a place that looks incredible in pictures can still fall short of its potential when examined in its context.
Other, newer projects also fall on one side of the divide or another. The Utah Valley Convention Center, for example, already has a relatively neglected plaza out front, suggesting the building’s designers took the “all or nothing approach” and ended up with an “automatic boondoggle.” Or put another way, it was a design-centered project.
The upcoming Tabernacle Temple may also follow this pattern. That project’s cohesion, or lack thereof, with the surrounding environment has been a frequent topic on this blog. (Click the “tabernacle temple” tag at the bottom of this post to read more on that topic.)
Ultimately, designing a place-centered space may be more difficult because it requires considering more variables and diverse viewpoints. But as neglected and failed spaces around Provo suggest, it’s necessary if the community wants spaces that do something more than look good in pictures.