Kathryn Wetherbee Wise on creating successful community gathering spaces.
Maine has a long history of valuing and celebrating public architecture and design, whether it’s a library, park, waterfront, or downtown district. We must preserve these societal pillars, rethink those that aren’t living up to their potential, and design new spaces with people and flexibility in mind, says architect Kathryn Wetherbee Wise of Harriman in Portland. MH+D asked her to tell us more.
Q. How did you become interested in the design of public spaces?
A. In graduate school I researched public spaces in different communities in cities and rural areas, and studied how those spaces have changed and/or stayed the same throughout history. I looked at places like Grand Central Station in New York, the North End in Boston, Boxpark Shoreditch in London, and the East End here in Portland, and was intrigued by how people were drawn to these places, how they tie communities together, and what makes them successful. My graduate thesis focused on the East End and specifically on a proposal to turn a vacant lot into a public space, potentially rejuvenating a portion of the district that is cut off from the rest of downtown Portland.
There is such a wide variety of public spaces in architecture, and you often find that these are the places where people connect and express themselves as individuals and a community. Here in Maine, you can walk through a downtown and find musicians performing in front of a coffee shop and artists displaying paintings along cobblestone streets. Or you can visit a public library to take time to reflect. A public space can be a grassy area that provides a place for picnics and flying kites one day and serves as a venue for an outdoor concert the next. This transformation of a space by people and a community is so inspiring to me. It’s what initially prompted me to explore how architecture and the physical design of spaces can promote exciting and engaging places for all people.
Q. What makes a public space successful?
A. I think the most successful public places are ones that can be shaped by the people using them and by the experiences they have within those spaces. As architects we must leave our assumptions about a community at the door. Instead we need to connect with the people who will inhabit a space and take time to experience it as users. What pathways do people take when walking through an area? Are they using the prescribed walkways or creating their own? Where do people sit? Are they in the sun or shade? Do they have their backs to other people or are they watching their surroundings? These lessons are invaluable when creating a new public space or making an existing one better.
One thing I believe is lacking in architecture right now is the ability to manipulate structures to suit different needs. I would love to see benches that can be reconfigured to seat one or ten people and carts that can be used as small shops, pushed together to create a stage for a performance, and separated to create a pop-up art gallery. Unused gathering areas in buildings and vacant parks that do not feel safe happen when flexibility and the unique needs of a community are not taken into consideration. The most successful public places have many people interacting with them, whether they are physically in the space or observing from a nearby window.
Q. What are some of your favorite public spaces?
A. I have loved seeing the transformation of the Bangor Waterfront, which is a project that my firm is currently involved with. Growing up in nearby Veazie, I do not remember this area being heavily used. Now it is bridging the waterfront district to the downtown and drawing people from all over the state and beyond. Monument Square in Portland is another great space. There are multiple ways to enter and exit, creating a dynamic, flowing feeling. The open area in the center allows for farmers’ markets, performances, and places to sit and enjoy a summer day. The various types of seating (benches, tables and chairs at the adjacent restaurants, and the ledge around the monument), natural daylight, and trees further enhance the experience. Finally, there are the users: the people in the square, in the restaurants and shops, and looking down from the stories above. All of these people interacting with the space and keeping watch over the happenings make it feel safe and inviting.
Q. How does your thinking about public spaces influence your work?
A. I think about public spaces not only in the context of grand urban environments but also on a smaller scale: the connection between buildings, say, or a place within someone’s home. I recently worked on a project for Mechanics Saving Bank in Auburn that involved creating an exterior connection between two buildings on their campus. We designed a new branch bank and renovated the existing bank into an office building. Previously, the only outdoor space was a parking lot. We devised a brick pathway that links the building entrances using the same architectural language of curved rooflines seen on the new structure. Lighting, gardens, and trees frame the walkway, allowing pedestrians to safely pass through and creating an environment where people can be outside without feeling like they’re in a parking lot. The path also connects the campus with Minot Avenue, resulting in a smoother transition from the busy street to the bank.
In homes, there are spaces that are relatively public, too—living and dining rooms for example, or a patio. These should also be designed flexibly so that they can be used and enjoyed by individuals or a big, energetic crowd.