In a city as busy, as populated, and as spatially challenged as Manhattan, the control of space is critical. There are few vacant lots, no sprawling fields; instead every block on the island has its purpose, and its owner. This is easy enough to see in the case of office buildings, apartment complexes, shopping centers and movie theaters, but how do we apply this to outdoor spaces? New York certainly has its share of public parks, which likewise have their designated purpose and owner, and these provide one kind of alternative to an otherwise dense landscape of glass, steal, and concrete. But Manhattan is filled with pockets of other types of outdoor public spaces, spaces that are far more integrated into the city itself. These are the spaces I am interested in exploring as they fall in the gray area between parks and buildings and the way we are to use these spaces is sometimes not so clear.
Situated at the busy intersection of Broadway and Columbus is Lincoln Center, a performing arts complex that includes the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and the Lincoln Center Theater, among others. On occasion I have walked past this complex and admired the spacious courtyard in front of the Met Opera and observed the way it sits back away, and a little above, the rush of traffic, as if with a gesture of quiet contemplation, or perhaps judgment. It is a space that is at once inviting and guarded, with an allure of tranquility that is in part due to that fact that not many people are bold enough to occupy its space. Even when this open space is flooded with people, as it must be on the evenings of popular performances, the people that tread its surface have presumably purchased a ticket to a show and thus feel a sense of purpose in their loitering. How, as city dwellers, do we read such a space? Surely it must be a public space, but does it feel public the way Bryant Park or Rockefeller Center feel public? Perhaps it is more of a private space then, meant to be enjoyed only before and after attending a performance—sort of an outdoor extension of the theater’s lobby?
In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre considers the role of architecture as signage in determining the meaning of a space, and while the courtyard in front of the Met Opera is not exactly a building, it is not without its architecture. Standing within the courtyard, the expansive space feels exposed and a little unsettling. There is nowhere to sit and there is nothing much but the fountain in the center to draw one’s gaze. And yet in contrast to this sense of exposure, the space also feels protected by the surrounding theaters, and also pleasantly isolated from the fast-paced city life beyond the courtyard.
Just beyond the Met Opera courtyard, to the right, a very different type of space is created in front of the Lincoln Center Theater. This space is smaller, with a shady grove where people can sit down, a reflecting pool with an abstract sculpture by Henry Moore, and a grassy knoll constructed on the roof of a restaurant. While the only people in the courtyard of the Met Opera were passersby, there only to take a few photos and move on, the courtyard of the Lincoln Center Theater was filled with people enjoying themselves reading, conversing, or out on a family excursion. Perhaps the grassy knoll most clearly represents the idea, and production, of controlled outdoor space. Even with people on it, it almost doesn’t seem quite accessible. Once on top, the ground feels all too smooth and its undulating surface is regular, like a graphed parabola. An imitation of nature planted well within the confines of an architectural construction. Nothing about either of these courtyards is arbitrary, and this shows in the very different ways these spaces are used despite their very similar roles as theater courtyards. How do we respond to architectural cues in spaces with no pre-determined purpose? How predictable is the use of space by members of a society and how else can it be controlled?
references and links:
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.