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INSTITUTIONAL BUILDING PUBLIC SPACES, theories and two Nordic study cases. Quentin DESFARGES

Advanced Theory & Methodology, CHALMERS, Spring 2014 Ana Betancour, Carl-Johan Vesterlund, Mateusz Prozar








From Antiquity to Contemporary uses.




Design, uses and city connections.




Design, uses and city connections.

22 Conclusion. 27 References.



A city must be built in a way to provide security and happiness to its inhabitants. » - Aristotle This quote sums up the main city design principles which has always been suitable for the urban design field. Maybe forgotten in some planning periods, especially during the industrialized era when car became the center of attention of planners, it has lately became more and more relevant for a livable city, full of urban life. Cities are composed of numerous constructions with various functions (housing, working, commercial, cultural) built by different architects, that creates a built environment made of architecture and urban spaces, the ones between buildings. The relationship between the built environment and the people living in it is very interesting. One must interact with the other, creating possibilities for population to thrive, allowing social interactions to happen and proposing a wide range of activities without any gender, age or race discrimination is a fundamental right for inhabitants. From an architectural education background, I want to take the opportunity in this short essay, to develop my knowledges about general urban strategies on public space but also to consider the more specific relationship between the edifice and the public space. « Public Space: the common space, usable and accessible by everyone » - Larousse French Dictionary « A public space is a social space that is generally open and accessible to people. Roads (including the pavement), public squares, parks and beaches are typically considered public space. Government buildings which are open to the public, such as public libraries are public space. » - Wikipedia


As we can see thanks to those definition of public space, that some buildings, government owned and open to the public, as institutional buildings (library, museum…) are consider as public space. Contrary to the built environment made of various constructions, an institutional building is a single piece of architecture located in an urban context. I’m interested on analyzing the relationship and the integration of this cultural building with its context, and the public life it offers to the users of this space, the city dweller as well as the visitor. What are the criteria for both a public building and its urban space to be considered as a site-related project? I’m very concern about the urban design field, especially regarding the public urban spaces and public buildings, which gather the public life of a city. Aiming to lead to a future thesis work on a public space related project, this essay will present a theoretical approach of public spaces in general and institutional building public space in particular, their main design principles, doctrines and evolution over history. This essay is also the occasion to analyze and present two study-cases projects of Nordic institutional buildings and their public spaces, namely the Stockholm Culture House (by Peter Celsing in 1974) and the Oslo Opera House (by Snøhetta in 2008).




From Antiquity to Contemporary uses. « Public space is the theatre of the history of mankind. » - Daniela Colafranceschi The use of public space is a right for everybody, as featuring in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Concerning Nordic countries, all nature areas are also considered as public space, regarding at the Allemansrätten law, the right of common passage and the freedom to roam for everybody to enjoy nature and its benefits. Public space is the collective dimension of domestic life and we can see that, over years, urban life have been moving from the urban space to the public building itself. In the Ancient history, public space and public building were considered as different projects. According to the architect and city planner theoretician Camillo Site in his legendary book «City Planning According to Artistic Principles» (1889), «  Public squares, or plazas, were {in ancient times}  of prime necessity, for they were theaters for the principal scenes of public life, which today take place in enclosed halls. Under the open sky, on the agora, the council of the ancient Greeks gathered.» The Roman forum was conceived as a stage for shows, as is a theater nowadays. Its center remains free while its periphery is surrounded by numerous impressive monuments as temples, art galleries, political buildings, shopping areas and public buildings as a school or a library. The Roman forum is a good example of a public place for people to assemble, it was the best space for social interactions and exchanges concerning economic or political issues. Without any discrimination of race, gender or age, from slaves to traders, it was a meeting place for everybody in everyday life. During the Middle-Age and the Renaissance periods, the public space was mostly used for practical reasons and formed a whole with the surrounding edifices. The square was an arena for powers to be demonstrated and exercised towards the population. It is also interesting


ÂŤ With the industrial revolution, the human dimension in the city have been truly neglected in favor of car. Âť

Capitole town hall building and its public square, Toulouse (France), 1963


to analyze the composition of the public space concerning fountains and monuments. Therefore, to the Roman principle to put monuments on the public space borders to clear the center space of the forum, the Middle-Age principle locates monuments and fountains where there is no circulation. In the early XXè century, modernism and the industrialized city developed a lot of new technologies for the people and the city regarding to communication and transportation. With the industrial revolution, the human dimension in the city have been truly neglected in favor of car, the traffic place became the main use of the public space and the principles learnt from history have been lost. The city became unlivable for the pedestrian, it became unsafe to walk in the city center, filled only with cars. The city public space has became a huge parking lot, disconnected from its neighborhood, even the institutional building public space is covered by parked cars. The public space lost its atmosphere, and the urban life is missing at the exact same place where it used to be intense. « Nothing in the world is more simple and more cheap than making cities that provide better for people. » - Jan Gehl From the 1970’s, urbanist and city planners researchers and theoreticians start to think again about the userinclusion in the contemporary urban design process. Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban designer is one of the most well-known researcher and theoretician of urban life nowadays. With a humanist approach and a special care for the human dimension, Gehl developed ideas and principles about how to create public spaces for those who will be using them, aiming at giving the urban space back to the people. He demonstrates that cities who have a conscious policy and invest in the development of urban spaces can manage to affect its general development. Gehl base his work on the idea of an universal invitation for the public to use the city public space. He considers cities as «life worlds» from


ÂŤ The site for the Pompidou Center in Paris was divided in two from the start. A square for city life and informal culture and a building for more formal cultural events.Âť -Jan Gehl

Georges Pompidou Center, Paris (France), 2006.


the point of view of the user, who is seen as a biological body and a psychological individual. With his legendary book Cities for people, Gehl analyzes and proposes different tools and principles to help the contemporary urban designer facing nowadays challenges on urban spaces. First of all, concerning protection of the public, the urban space should provides protection against traffic and accidents, against crime and violence for the people to feel safe and secure, and against unpleasant sensory experiences as meteorological elements (wind, rain, cold, heat) as well as city disturbances (pollution, dust, noise). Then, concerning the comfort of the individual, the urban space must provides opportunities to walk, to stand, to sit, to see, to talk and listen, and to play. In this diversity of activities, Gehl aims at inviting everyone offering specific and locally defined qualities. Finally, Jan Gehl presents three ideas for the public to delight the urban space, as the importance of the design for the human scale, the opportunity to enjoy the positive aspects of the climate depending on the season for a all-year around use, and positive sensory experiences, as a detailed and a good material quality space. According to Gehl, institutional building public space must make the most of it to invite the city dwellers to use their city. Good public projects must propose a square for city life and informal culture and a building for more formal cultural events, as the Paris Pompidou Center’s site divided in two equal areas from the start. Institutional buildings and their squares should be opening up towards all sides, welcoming visitors from all around the construction (cf. Melbourne Museum). The boundary between the city and the building is erased, as the Oslo Opera House welcoming users on its roof, or the open-air library in Berlin. Finally, the public building can use the outdoor public space as a part of its program, as a museum could use the outside space to expose artwork or an orchestra propose an outdoor performance (flash mobs). We can believe that urban life has recently gained in intensity!




Stockholm Culture House. Design, uses and city connections. Designed in 1974 by Peter Celsing, the Stockholm « Kulturehuset » and its public space are a great urbanism example of the late modernist period. We can easily relate this project to the «above the street» urban planning concept, very common in France in the 1960’s, which is fighting for the complete separation between the pedestrian and the car circulation. An artificial floor is created and the street exploded, to have either the dynamic connection or a strolling space. Two to three distinctive levels are establish, from the underground floor used for the common transportation systems (train, metro, bus, taxi), the ground floor is given to the private cars while the upper slab is reserved for the pedestrians. The Stockholm project for culture, which have became an inspiration for the Pompidou Center in Paris, is divided in two parts, the building and the square. The Culture House building. With its theater, design shop, activity center, exhibitions, bars and restaurants, it is quite a swarming space for the public life. Standing with its back against other constructions southern, it opens towards the North with a gigantic and welcoming glass facade acting like the stage of a theater, where the visitor is the actor as well as the spectator. « What attracts people must, it would appear, is other people. », this quote by the urbanist William H. Whyte in his report about « Social Life of Small Urban Spaces » can be verified in the Culture House of Stockholm. Seen from the public square, and especially at night, this facade is the scene of the urban life taking place inside the building at all time. Everybody from Sergels Torg square try to look at the inner space of the building, the sound, the lights, the moving shadows of users, they want to know if there is a major event happening, if it is crowded or not, and if it worth going inside. But it also works perfectly the other way around! With its five floors, while going to the bars and restaurants, all located


ÂŤ Much criticized for its modernist design giving priority to car at the cost of pedestrians, it is nevertheless, the most popular public space of Stockholm.Âť

Culture House, Stockholm (Sweden), 2012.


on the frontside of the building, all the consumers wish to sit close to this glass facade, overlooking the square and the roundabout with its illuminated sculpture, but most importantly to look at over the people, actors of the urban life in the city. The Sergels Torg public space was designed to replace the historic urban fabric which as been razed in connexion with the massive renewal of Sweden during the 1950’s and 1960’s. With the Culture House building in the South, the square is surrounded by major traffic roads as Klarabergsgatan on the North while the East of the space is closed by the roundabout and its glass obelisk. On the West of the project, Drottninggatan is a major pedestrian street stretching for almost one kilometer and a half through the city center connecting different neighborhoods. Separated in different levels, the ground floor of the square is used for the vehicles circulation with a gigantic roundabout, while a sunken level receives the pedestrians and shops with a black and white triangular pattern on the floor. The triangle design works well connecting the space to its surrounding urban environment giving a playful and dynamic character to the cityscape. Connecting a mall (East) and the T-Centralen metro station (West), the square is used by massive flows of people as a commuting area. Much criticized for its modernist design giving priority to car at the cost of pedestrians, it is nevertheless, the most popular public space of Stockholm. This square is used for a wide range of events as for political demonstrations, working as an amphitheater with the slab overlooking the Kulturhuset plaza. It is also a good meeting point as there are various and distinctive spots easily identifiable. It is finally a good spot for cultural and sport events as the fountain in which people celebrate every major victory of a Swedish sport team. Unfortunately, according to different sources, the ground floor slab causes the creation of close and dark spaces underneath. They are not easily controllable either by the police forces or the « eye on the street » and lead to the use of this space by untrusted people as drug dealers.




Oslo Opera House. Design, uses and city connections. The Oslo Opera House, completed in 2008 by the Norwegian studio Snøhetta has very quickly became a landmark for the Norwegian city. The city of Oslo is encircled by infrastructures, highways and railways constructed as part of the welfare-city project but now seen as creating an impassable barrier between the city and the sea. The connection with the waterfront use formerly used by industrial and harbour activities were impossible. Bjøvirka, where the building is located, is an inlet in the inner Oslofjord. Previously used as a container port, the area is under a major urban redevelopment to become Oslo « cultural » center. Receiving the Oslo Opera House and the Munch Museum, the area is also under the construction of twelve medium-rise buildings, called the Barcode. Many projects in the area aims to reconnect the inner city to its waterfront, as the construction of the Bjørvika Tunnel, Dronning Eufemias new avenue and many pedestrian connections (6 different allmenninger, as the Stasjonsallmenningen), as well as the removal of many infrastructures (Bispelokket and E18 highway). Built on piles in the fjord, the opera extends the city waterfront to give it back to the public. Contrary to the Stockholm Culture House where the building and the public space are two different projects connected to each other, the Oslo Opera House building and square are unified in a single construction, giving the building’s roof completely open and accessible to the public. A building as much as a landscape architectural work, it plays with the metaphor of an iceberg or white Carrara marble extending in the fjord, the Oslo Opera House has no diversity in its materiality and its shrill whiteness is an invitation in the chaotic cityscape. It was purposely conceived, and functions, as a public and accessible urban space, with its different open slopes offering various opportunities for people to pass time. Offering a 360° view towards the city, the Opera House roof allows a lot of activities for the users as walking,


ÂŤ... none of the documentation found describe the urban space surrounding the building on North, East and South sides, the West sloping facade holding back all the interest of the public.Âť

Opera House South facade, Oslo (Norway), 2014.


standing, or sitting, young people may skateboard and older one may have picnics, but a major feature is the reconnection of the public to the water edge all year around. While being completely accessible from the water to the top roof, the boundary between the open exterior and the controlled interior is clearly legible. The lobby was also treated by the architectural studio as a public space, a free and open area to the public 24/7, and thanks to its cafes and gift shops, the building will always attract visitors, even they are not opera fans. With a surface of 38 500m2, it is the workplace of 600 people and welcomes until 1 750 spectators in its two auditoriums. As abstract and cool as the building may appear from the outside with its Carrara marble and reflecting glass surfaces, the interior is more intimate, warm and welcoming. Flooded with light, the foyer is remarkable by its monumental curved timber-clad wall, receiving the ramps and staircases leading to the main auditorium. With various opportunities to sit, on benches and movable tables and chairs, the use of the space is optimal and everybody can easily enter the building and appropriate a part of the space for a while, as a space for an afternoon break or a meeting with someone. However, we can observe that, despite the fantastic description about every aspect of the Oslo Opera House, none of the documentation found describe the urban space surrounding the building on North, East and South sides, the West sloping facade holding back all the interest of the public. In my opinion, it is hard to judge those spaces as they are nowadays under major transformations in accordance to the urban development project of the Bjørvika area. Nevertheless, on those back facades, the Opera offers generous windows at street level offering a glimpse of the scenery workshop activities to the public. At eye-level on the North facade, the building hosts a restaurant and the scenery workshop, opening towards a pedestrian path and the Bispegata and Bispelokket infrastructures un-


ÂŤ... a major feature is the reconnection of the public to the water edge all year around.Âť

Opera House, Oslo (Norway), 2014.


der construction work, which are now very crowded and impossible to cross. The East facade is the backside of the Opera, by the end of the pier and close to the water, where the building welcomes the costumes workshop. We can find here no pedestrian pavement but only a road used by cars to access the employees parking lot and trucks for the building logistic. The South facade, very well oriented towards the sun and the Oslofjord accommodates the administration offices of the building, and its urban space is composed of a void space surrounded by water where a few cars and boats are parked. From this space also starts a pedestrian bridge connecting the pier to the Fjord City new Neighborhood. Very well welcome by the public and the professionals and fresh from its success, the Oslo Opera House wins, on April 29th 2009, the European prize for contemporary architecture by the European Commission and the Mies van der Rohe Foundation. It is, in my opinion, the best public building and urban space of the last decade, based on the social integration in its architecture and landscape design, and I hope that the future development of the neighborhood and the work on its surrounding public spaces will confirm us that Oslo have a special care for its public.



What are the criteria for both a public building and its urban space to be considered as a site-related project? This essay has shown the shift of the urban life over history from the urban space to the inside space of the public buildings and the reverse process going on lately, when institutional buildings have a special interest in developing the design of the square. Plenty of different urban design approaches towards the public building and its urban space took place over years with their owns theories and principles. Even the two study-cases in Stockholm and Oslo, with a 30 years difference, present two different design proposals for institutional buildings and their public spaces. There is also a continuous shift over years of the use of public space, depending on the design and the activities an urban space can propose. For example, a major part of the economic and political uses of the public space have moved to different buildings. Political issues are now discussed in political buildings as Parliament building and even if some farmers market survive nowadays, the main market place of the urban space as moved to shops, supermarket and malls, for instance. To design an institutional building require the architect a strong position on the cityscape. As we noticed it in the introduction part of this essay, a public building is a monumental construction with a specific program requiring a lot of square meters and a strong relation to its built environment due to its public feature of an open and accessible building, it is a good social pressure release valve of people of both genders, different ages, rich or poor. Therefore, the institutional building must remarkably stand in its environment, offering a front facade and a public space design for the population, a facade of representation to show its greatness and openness to everyone. However, as any other construction, it also must provide a backside, for logistic issues, this facade will be quite close because of the storage issues, but it also must provide a good connection with its surroundings.


A building must always be related to its site, its context. This essay as shown that the public design project tends to merge different topic and projects into a single one. From the Ancient Times to the Renaissance where the public space and the monument were different projects, to the Stockholm Culture House where building and square are two projects related to each other. The best example, in my opinion, is the Oslo Opera House where the design proposal take in consideration the context and merge the institutional building with the urban space design in a single construction as an architectural and landscape project where the edifice extends towards the outside space and can use the square as part of its program. We see the contemporary city as a whole, it is a web connecting each point of it with a clear and straight link. The public space, the one between buildings, is the connective element between the public buildings and its built environment. The boundary between the city and the building is erased, the paths and connections are fluids. Moreover, we can see the importance of a context-related project when even a building such as Oslo Opera House project (Mies van der Rohe award), can be feel weak in some of its urban spaces because of the construction work in its neighborhood aiming at a complete connection in a near future. In my opinion, we can categorized a site-related project from the competition stage. The most site-related project is the one designed by a national company, using local materials and workforces. But the final and most important aspect of such a public project is the social facet. Indeed, an institutional building must corresponds to the idea of an « universal invitation » as defined by Jan Gehl as the importance of inviting everyone, but in a targeted and specific manner. Not directing the invitation at the city dwellers culture but at their humanity and fundamentals human needs, common things to all people, but where a person’s age or gender, for instance, make the difference. There is common need for everyone to feel safe, secure, protected


from natural elements, to be in a pleasant microclimate, as well as to be able to watch at other people (the first activity on public spaces). Because where the younger will be attracted by physical challenges, seniors are attracted by opportunities to sit, to talk and to see. It is an invitation for everyone, by offering very specific and locally defined qualities. Because as Aristotle proclaimed it during the 4th century BC, ÂŤ A city must be built in a way to provide security and happiness to its inhabitants. Âť.




FILMS Hustwit, G. (2011) Urbanized. Whyte, W. H. (1988) The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. BOOKS Nielsen, T. (2012) Democratic Urban Spaces in the Nordic Countries. New Nordic Architecture & Identity, ss. 166-187. Gehl, J. and Gemzøe, L. (2000) Winning back public space. New City Spaces, ss. 10-20. Gehl, J. (2010) Cities for people, Washington: Island Press. Jacobs, J. Death and Life of Great American Cities Sitte, C. (1889) Introduction. The Art of Building Cities, ss. 1-7. MAGAZINES Dögg Hauksdóttir, G. (2012) New nordic culturescapes. Culturescapes, vol. 78, ss. 18-27. Grønvold, U. (2009) Opera House in Oslo. Detail, vol. 3, ss. 198-215. ILLUSTRATIONS Oslo Opera House Public Space, page 1.


Toulouse Capitole town hall building and its public square, page 8.ĂŠes-60 Paris Georges Pompidou Center, page 10. Richard-Rogers-Partnership-/Centre-Pompidou.htm Stockholm Culture House, page 14. Oslo Opera House, page 18. personal photography Oslo Opera House, page 20. max_7be62633d4e72a9950ef60d54fd5895c.jpg WEB


Quentin DESFARGES Advanced Theory & Methodology, CHALMERS, Spring 2014 Ana Betancour, Carl-Johan Vesterlund, Mateusz Prozar

Institutional building public spaces, theories and two nordic study cases.