Making a Public Spectacle

Text by Kassandra Bucher

In the City of San Francisco, our beloved Dolores Park is under construction, the streets are clogged with traffic, and the sidewalks seem to be getting smaller and smaller as the population booms with the tech bubble.

But a ray of hope shines brightly in the form of parklets—former parking spots turned into public oases where once there were only cars. Parklets began as an experimental urban intervention and are now a City-supported initiative. Their numbers grow every year.

Now, swissnex San Francisco is getting into the act as well with a parklet designed as a living lab for what’s possible within a tiny outdoor footprint—a modular stage for discussion, performances, screenings, workshops, relaxation, and more.

From September 5-12, 2014, a group of designers, urban planners, and architects from Switzerland and around the world convened in the San Francisco Bay Area to take inspiration from the parklet model and participate in a seminar called The Public Spectacle aimed at reimagining public space.

Designing for the public

The Public Spectacle design seminar was a collaboration between swissnex San Francisco, ETH Zurich’s Urban Think Tank, and UC Berkeley’s Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning. The curriculum inspired and accelerated conversations around innovating in the public realm.

Attendees participated in site visits and discussions with urban innovators and attended a walking tour of parklets in the Mission District of San Francisco as well as a bicycle tour to Oakland’s Temescal Alley.

Celebrating in the streets

On September 12, to cap off the week of learning, the group joined swissnex San Francisco to celebrate its forthcoming parklet with an evening of serious conversation and serious fun held on a temporary version of the parklet.

Under colored lights atop the amphitheater-like modular stage, partners and experts from the San Francisco Planning Department and UC Berkeley discussed the exciting intersection of architecture, public space, and city life.

Speaker John Bela of Gehl Architects, a design partner in the parklet, expressed that the event itself was an example of “occupying the street and sidewalk.”

ETH’s Urban Think Tank Chair, Alfredo Brillembourg, also a speaker and performer during the evening believes, as he says, in “informalizing space” and creating “hot corners” with prototypes like the swissnex San Francisco parklet that promote social interaction.

“I was attracted to architecture for aesthetic reasons at first,” Brillembourg says. “Then I questioned, who am I doing this for? And I shifted my practice toward activism, architecture, and city planning. Now I’m trying to understand how we insert these new prototypes into the history of the city.”

Stay tuned for news about the official opening of the swissnex parklet!