When one travels to unknown lands:

A clear destination and not a moment lost in wandering. Acutely aware of the seconds ticking by before the next stop in the itinerary. These are some racing thoughts for tourists visiting monuments, museums, squares, and other iconic urban markers.

Most seasoned travelers fight this pulsating instinct, choosing instead to listen to a busker, eat locally produced treats, and watch where the residents go. However, when just getting started, that is a perspective yet unexplored. One of the only other vocations that allows this attitude to seep into the soul is architecture. Keep reading to discover an architect’s perception of the communal aspects of our urban landscape.

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Times square_ © Lucas Compan

A visit to a Plaza in Rome:

A person touring the Piazza della Signoria in Rome views the Fountain of Neptune and other Italian sculptures, captures the scene of the monumental Palazzo Vecchio, and strides into the Uffizi Gallery across the large square. But when you know about your subjects of observation, as Architects do, things take an interesting turn. 

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Piazza della Signoria_ © Roberto Roberti

An architect perceives squares as time capsules that honor the integrity of the past while perpetuating modern social interactions. The history of the Piazza della Signoria explains its presence for assemblies, public executions, and other mass ceremonies that demanded its grand scale. In the present day, the architect could experience the scale of the plaza prominently with the juxtaposition of the connecting narrow lanes; a contrast that reveals endless possibilities for optional activities to take place. 

Pop-up eateries, open-air exhibits, and installations allow communal and seasonal activities to litter the large public space. Pedestrian plazas are only considered successful in the presence of multiple choices they pose for their users. Like William H Whyte says,” What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people,” (1980, Whyte) – and people congregate around places of maximum seating and pause points.

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Collage of Piazza della Signoria_ © Varssni Karthick

An architect’s perspective would focus on some prime aspects to be included in the experience of a public square like legibility of space, kinesthetic experience, number of social activities, seating, and density of footfall. These factors automatically weigh in toward establishing the safety and appeal of the square.

A stroll through Chinatown- a global cultural enclave:

Ecosystems within the heart of concrete jungles that protect and celebrate the diaspora in foreign countries become dynamic image-making entities. For a tourist visiting Chinatown in lower Manhattan, the wall-to-wall buildings with Chinese lanterns strewn over the roadway and the everyday bustle of the community create an atmosphere that can’t be denied its impact.

However, people often chalk up these diversified communities under the label of “exotic tourist traps”. This ready complacency to categorize neighborhoods as living museums and theme parks is harmful in the pursuit of maintaining the community’s integrity and historical significance. “A world of its own to New York tourists and locals alike, Chinatown holds a singular experience for its thousands of residents—it’s a home away from home,” (Caligor, 2023) says a New York-based Journalist. One could not agree more, as visitors should embody the inhabitants’ spirit when sharing in on this home’s gracious embrace. 

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Chinatown in New York City_ © Alexander Spatari

An architect understands the ignorance steeped in strictly addressing a place for personal amusement and picture-perfect postcards. Rather than subscribing to such negligence, one should approach with genuine curiosity using a multifaceted lens that extends beyond the surface. The urban planning and design of this New York habitat would showcase how it is edged by prominent boulevards on all sides with the Chatham square becoming one point of entry. Here, the public gathering spaces and community infrastructure facilitate activities that reflect the unique cultural practices of the families and residents, for example, one could walk into Columbus Park in the morning and spot old Asian uncles and aunties performing Tai Chi and at noon, fortune tellers and table games occupy the park. It’s also intriguing to notice how Chinese motifs are blended with local influences. The lampposts boasting motifs of lions and dragons set the tone as the aroma of dim sums wafts around the streets. Bi-lingual signages and intricate latticework displays paralleled with posters along the streetscape, visually reflect the Chinese-American lifestyle. 

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Collage of Chinatown in New York City_ © Varssni Karthick

Keen observation and immersion as architects allow placemaking strategies, mixed-use integration, historical context, and signature cultural elements to be greatly appreciated. The soul of thriving neighborhoods like Chinatown is deeper than its revenue-generating tourism.

Gazing at the sky in the Windy City: 

Stories carved into steel and stone; become a mantle of sanctity and symbolism. Biblically the Tower of Babel is considered man’s first attempt at progressive vertical development. An attempt that popularly bore no fruits- leading to scattered settlements and barbed-wire borders. It can be argued that the next known birthplace of soaring spires is the formidable skyline of Chicago

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Chicago_© Ben Sutherland

Willis Tower or Sears Tower built in 1970, stands the tallest in Chicago. Spectators who don’t know better, consider it another skyscraper pegged onto the skyline. But architects and urban designers would know that its significance doesn’t run that shallow.  The public spaces like sky decks and meeting and event spaces atop the building are designed to entertain visitors, displaying an array of panoramic views of the city, with the base grounded to the sidewalk showcasing art installations by artists on top of their game. The sheer engagement with the people by allowing them to be a part of the legacy leaves a positive psychological impression on the city’s residents. Obelisks, clock towers, and then skyscrapers have been pivotal in mankind’s approach toward wayfinding, using these elements as landmarks. The orientation it provides toward navigating the city makes the tower a prime component of urban morphology. As designers, it is also imperative to note the image that the tower brandishes. The simple design of Willis Tower’s staggering silhouette is the crown jewel of the city- offering a sense of place! 

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Collage of Willis Tower_© Varssni Karthick

These are some phenomena an architect would contemplate for hours after basking under its monumental scale.

At the end of it all:

Perception is permanently altered when architecture becomes a way of life. Sketchbook diagrams, photos of materials and textures, videos taken of designed and undesigned spaces, and observational time-based documentation are critical weapons employed to analyze urban patterns and rip them at their seams to peer closer. 

That’s what architects do when lost in their reverie – they observe, sigh, shed the confines of conventional learning, and allow unabashed wonder to take over. 

References:

  • Trainline (2022). Everything you need to know about visiting Piazza della Signoria. [online]. Available at: https://www.thetrainline.com/via/europe/italy/florence/visiting-piazza-della-signoria#:~:text=Walking%20around%20Piazza%20della%20Signoria,adjacent%20to%20the%20famous%20square [Accessed 29 Dec 2023].
  • Whyte, W H. (1980). The social life of small urban spaces. 8th ed. New York: Project for Public Spaces, Inc.
  • Livia Caligor (2023). This is what Chinatown looks like in the 21st century. [online]. Available at: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/chinatown-21st-century [Accessed 29 Dec 2023].
  • New York Habitat. (2009). New York City – Video Tour of Chinatown, Manhattan (Chatham Square, MOCA & Columbus Park) [Youtube video]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFOrThNwCh4 [Accessed 29 Dec 2023].
  • The editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica (2023). Tower of Babel. [online]. (Last updated: 9 Nov 2023) Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tower-of-Babel [Accessed 29 Dec 2023].
  • Willis Tower (2023). The Height of Experience in Chicago. [online]. Available at: https://www.willistower.com/experience [Accessed 29 Dec 2023].
Author

Varssni Karthick is an architect, writer, and artist treading the lines between the real and imagined worlds. She is an aspiring urban designer keen on bridging the chasm of inaccessibility between users and the design of the collective realm. Besides escaping into novels and perfecting song covers, people-watching is her preferred way to unwind.