30 June 2010

THE SEMI PUBLIC; A BUILDING'S GIFT TO THE STREET



The quality of a street greatly depends on the character of the space defining elements that shape it. A building can and should reveal a bit of what goes on inside of it, in order to illuminate a portion of the procession of the street, playing its part to give life to its own little part of that procession.  If enough buildings do this, the street begins to feel lively and compelling to move through. If enough buildings do not do their part, offering up blank walls, dark holes, and solid doors, then you have a street that is uninteresting and perhaps dangerous; a place you want to limit your time in.

It's rare that a building can be completely open to the street. Even in most open of functions, a retail setting in good weather, where passers-by are meant to be seduced and welcomed in, there still is an implied barrier. There is something different between a sidewalk and the inside of a store, even when the wide doors are fully propped open to welcome people and the weather right in. Yet this situation provides a great mutual offering: the street offers customers to the business, and the business offers interest to the street.

So there is a division, an invisible demarcation between the most public of private places, and the public itself. This invisible demarcation separates places where passers-by are free to roam, and where people are 'invited in'.  I'll call these 'invited in' spaces ‘The Semi-Public’.

The Semi Public as a commercial / retail enterprise is a means of introduction to a very rich and varied type of space in the cities and towns we build; it really is a zone, acknowledged or not, between the building and its private functions and the street or ‘Public’. Somewhere there is a zone between the building and the street that 'welcomes' the passerby to look at the building. It serves varied functions and holds varied characteristics depending on the type of building fronts, but it also share some common traits across the board.

Back to the responsibility of buildings to communicate with the street; most of the internal activities of buildings are not directly available to the public, nor should they be. Therefore, to make a place comfortable to live and work in, some 'filtering' is needed between the private and public. That filtering, handled in the right way, allows the building to offer the gift of interest and activity. An integral part of this filtering takes place in that semi-public zone- a place where the public may be 'invited in'.

The Semi-Public is the ornate lobby in an impressive office building that reaches out to the street. It’s the arbor and low gate that forms the entrance to a beautiful front courtyard. It’s the porte cochere at the front of an impressive hotel. All these places offer glances of what is inside, give clues to the function of the place. They at least welcome a glance, and perhaps offer the first step in, all the while protecting what lies inside.

A transition from the outside to the inside is a necessity; one is conveyed from the street into a building, even in a prison. If a building’s obligation to the street is ignored, if what is inside is filtered with a blank wall, then the transition when it occurs is rude and abrupt, and the street is missing a valuable component to make it interesting and safe. If a gracious Semi-Public space is offered, it allows for a great building to offer its gift back to the street.

Here are some characteristics of the Semi-Public place:

  • It’s part of the entry sequence of the building; It is an attractive part of the procession of entering
  • It offers the street a safe glimpse of what takes place within
  • It is a place that is not part of The Public, and yet, at least part of the time invites the public in
  • It is or can be an entrance court, a portal, a lobby, an open retail space, or a front yard
  • It provides a comfortable barrier or filter for the activities with the private space of the building

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