The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

The fourth Interior and Spatial Lectures was held by a panel of tutors, guests and students who discussed a number of different media including videos, art and student projects. The first video shown was a TED talk by Texas-based designer and builder, Dan Phillips, who builds extraordinary low budget homes out of salvaged, recycled materials. He is a self-taught plumber, electrician, and carpenter. Phillips founded Phoenix Commotion with his wife, Marsha, which is an inventive construction company who aim to reclaim landfill waste and transform it into one-of-a-kind houses that are affordable, energy efficient and sustainable. They also run an apprenticeship program, teaching local youth and volunteers sustainable building skills and creative construction.

In his passionate, yet amusing talk, he presented a range of his design creations, which focus on problem solving and function. The materiality of each and every of his buildings is unique due to the found materials he has available at the time. Through the quirky mixture of colours and textures of the material he aims to create houses that are whimsical, thought provoking and warm. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a complete set of anything because repetition creates pattern, repetition creates pattern, repetition creates pattern,” he stated. Most of his “finds” come from the side of the road, the trash, or salvaged from other construction sites.  Some of these include mismatched bricks, shards of ceramic tiles, shattered mirrors, corks and old DVDs. One of his houses has a roof made out of license plates and another has a ceiling made out of samples of photo frames, repeated in a pattern. By working in this way, Phillips feels he is freed from restrictions of standardized building materials, like the common sizes for studs and sheets of plywood, which he calls the “tyranny of the two-by-four and four-by-eight.” Phillips makes use of end cuts discarded by other builders, which he nails together into sturdy and visually interesting grids. This video was effective in getting us to rethink the way we choose and use materials and our perception of what is an aesthetically pleasing design. It also provoked the use of our imagination. His philosophy, as stated in the Houston Heroes’ article is that “We are slowly denuding the planet [and] can’t continue to live this way. We throw away and buy new rather than repair and re-use,” he adds. “We need to use renewable resources and use non-renewables carefully.” A point raised about this video by the design panel was that “Everyone can design.” Everyone is a designer in their own right; everyone is an interior designer in the sense they can organise and layout.

Another video shown at this session was a short segment from William H Whyte’s film ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ which traced the activity of people in the Seagram Plaza in New York City. Whyte is an American sociologist who was examining the popularity of this public space, in contrast to the lack of activity of other plazas in the area. This research was to work out what makes an effective and usable public space. New York City was offering bonus floor space to developers if they provided plazas as public spaces within the property. However, these plazas were just empty spaces scattered throughout the city and were underused. The Seagram Plaza designed by Miles van de Rohe was different to these as it was alive with activity. The New York Zoning Commission wanted to know what was making this space so popular so that they could draw up a new zoning resolution for open spaces. This film presents Whyte’s discoveries made through a variety of research techniques, including the use of time-lapse film and direct observation, which he recorded in the form of maps and graphs clearly showing the correlation between the data.

At first, Whyte presumed that the factor of sunlight was the most important feature drawing people to this space. He studied sun patterns and social movement to test this hypothesis, and discovered that although sunlight did have an impact on users, there were other underlying factors that were worth considering. He began by recording the types of activities occurring like reading, talking, eating and watching. Then he documented and made connections between these activities and the type of people found in the space, from business people to tradesmen, young and old, people sitting alone or in groups.

An intriguing finding was that the most common activity was “people looking at other people.” The construction, layout and design of Seagram made it easy for people to do this. The steps and ledges provided seating from which people could watch others in the plaza as well as on the street. Inevitably, this became the most significant factor contributing to the success of the plaza. However this was not what the space was designed for. When the architect, Miles van de Rohe, saw people sitting on the ledges, he was quite surprised. He had never predicted that people would do this. Without knowing it, he had designed the seats and ledges as perfect seating. There were no railings, shrubbery or ornamentation cluttering the space as the architects’ valued simplicity. Whyte therefore proposed that for a successful plaza, it is these features that should be planned with people’s sitting tendencies in mind (rather than simply placing park benches in the space). This gives people more freedom people to sit up front, in the back, to the side, in the sun, or out of it as they please. The flat surfaces can also be used as tables and a form of shelves.

Whyte’s conclusions were presented to New York City and were added into the new zoning code. They included, the provision of sitting space, presence of trees, access for the disabled and having a close linkage with the street. Other factors that weren’t included but Whyte still deemed necessary for a successful plaza were the absence of sun (as a both a form of light and heat) and availability of food.

This session of the lecture series was an interesting discussion between the variety of guests and featured some great projects and inspiring designers.

Anna, 2009, ‘Builder Dan Phillips’ Philosophy: One Mans Trash is Anothers Home,’ Green Talk, weblog, viewed 12 April 2011,  <;

TEDX 2009, ‘Dan Phillips: Creative Houses from Reclaimed Stuff’, video, viewed 12 April 2011,<;

Murphy, K. 2009, ‘One Mans Trash…,‘ New York Times, viewed 12 April 2011,  <;

Wolf, V. 2004, ‘Houston Heroes- Dan Phillips: weaving dreams from discarded things ,‘ viewed 12 April 2011, <;

Project for Public Spaces, 2010, ‘Sitwalls, Ledges and Steps,’ viewed 12 April 2011, <;

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