The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1919] The Perfect Public Domain


"Without essence, there is no existence. From the ultimate essence, the intrinsic nature of all existence springs". The essence of a public space is the interplay between form and function, between vision and technical execution on the one hand and utility and invitational space on the other.

"We experience cities as bewildering assemblages of a variety of functions, to which architecture, in all its widely differing manifestations, leads the necessary framework". Function is the ultimate arbiter or should be of successful design. It is the central conceptual challenge the planner and the architect must address. Public space is a tapestry which must reflect the requirements both prosaic and aesthetic of those taking advantage of its offering. It must both attract and service the needs of its constituency in an environment of convenience.Hence, it is essential that the architect understand the space, the demographics of the environs, the services that exist and have yet to be provided, in order to create a space that contributes to enhancing the active and inactive lives of those potentially populating the space.

The notion of 'public space' is a highly subjective term, charged with political, economic, cultural and regulatory overtones, all of which must be successfully addressed in the outcome. Yet, there is an almost metaphysical quality that must be addressed also. There is a chemistry that either exists or fails to, between what must be a living space and its appeal on the one hand, and the audience it must continue to seduce on the other. We have all witnessed the empty soulless spaces that were designed for the public, but are now bereft of promise. The litmus test then, for a truly public space, is not its design and designation alone, but its success in attracting the presence of those it was created to serve. The aura of a welcoming and secure environment that provides solace to the heart and mind cannot rely on design alone. The architect must capture that which is much more ephemeral, a spirit, an energy that is born out of people's respect and enthusiasm for their cumulative presence and respect for the space that accommodates them.

Public spaces are generally perceived as open spaces. They must by definition facilitate personal and social activities. It is this, and only this, that validates the design and vision of the planners and architects. But it is again that indefinable characteristic, that quality, that when added to the composite of design and function, accessibility and comfort, creates public affinity with the space, giving it life.

The public spaces which graced the ancient cities of the Kathmandu Valley are portals into its cultural realities of its heritage. They addressed the needs of an agrarian society incorporating, their religious icons, their art forms and the specific influences of the ethnic and spiritual beliefs of a much more static society, than we now experience. As modernity encroaches on these spaces it brings with it a much more diverse ethnic and cultural mix, given the migration of the citizenry to the cities in search of expanded opportunity and security. Hence, the requirements of those existing public spaces are changing. Though these spaces are still enjoyed by the locals, hosting festivals and open-air markets and other social gatherings, they are also accommodating the tourists who come to witness the wonders of the cultural heritage and the architectural history they embrace.

These architectural odes to Kings and Gods, to myth and fact, are ambassadors of the past to present and future users. This often requires that the space be upgraded and embellished while maintaining its historical antecedents, for if these venues are to maintain their vibrancy and relevance they must have the dynamic, living, characteristics of an interactive public space.

The changing requirements and needs of our cities, in part fostered by the move away from the agricultural economies of what were city-states to the more light industry and service oriented economy of the present, has changed the dynamics of people's free time, from a seasonal one to holidays, weekends and evenings. New forms of entertainment and the notion of what characterizes and defines enjoyment and the utilization of free time has presented a whole host of new challenges to the definition of and attraction to public space. As a result many of the designated public spaces have been encroached on for private use while others lie fallow and empty.

One of the largest designated public spaces in the valley is the big open ground known as 'Tudikhel' in the center of the city, which was once Asia's largest parade ground. Access to it in recent times has been severely restricted for a variety of reasons, security being one of them. Akin to this, there are other public spaces, access to which is denied do to conversions to private space or the attempts by authorities to maintain and preserve the aesthetics and cultural heritage they represent. But I believe a public space cannot retain its vibrancy and life without its interaction with, and relationship to, the people who contribute to its definition. Even a rose is not complete without its thorns.

Public spaces are all too often defined by some architectural phenomenon, without all the relational characteristics that embellish people's security and comfort in relation to it. Although what I am about to say is highly controversial, I believe that the World Heritage Listed Durbar Squares of the Valley fail to meet the tests of a truly welcoming and integrated public space.

They are monuments to the past isolated in time and function. They are daunting and in many ways they defy the very tenets of what a public space should be. Those tenets are comfort, accessibility, and security, an ability to relate and understand what one is witnessing and to identify with one's surrounding. All these are the universal points of reference essential to a thriving interactive public space. Yes! A lot of people can be seen around these squares, but it is not necessarily because of the surroundings. It may be in spite of them. If you establish enough commerce or the place is centrally located and the only open space in the community, then people will congregate there, but it is because there are few options. A truly successful public space is somewhere you go by choice to commune with your surroundings, not just to carry out a transaction. There are sites in the valley such as Pashupatinath and Baudhanath, two of the greatest religious destinations, respectively, in the Hindu and Buddhist worlds. They transcend their histories and definitions because they welcome and embrace those who visit them, partly due to their spiritual antecedents and energy, but also in large part do to their accessibility and relevance.

I am not a proponent of isolating these spaces from current culture and human use, in order to preserve them. Their utility is totally realized by their relationship to the concerns and desires of the ancestors, direct and indirect, of those that constructed them. I don't believe that successful restoration and preservation, and ongoing human interaction with these sites, are mutually exclusive of each other. Planning and thoughtful upgrading of the facilities, with clearly defined protective rules and regulations, while maintaining historical sanctity, should address the ongoing demands of that interaction.

While defining the components of a public space, which is without question site-specific and defined by the particular locational, cultural and functional requirements of the site, function can ill afford to become the slave of fashion or architectural design. Functionality of a public space must be the primary concern.

There is a food stall near Patan Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site, on the northern alley, just behind an important temple. Cramped up between clusters of houses it occupies a tiny space. A place to sit and eat is provided adjacent to it. It is only referred to as 'the shop behind the temple'. This eatery is famous for its Newari culinary delights, cooked and served fresh. Packed in on squeaky, tired benches, the varied clientele sit on protruding nail heads in a smoke filled space, with people queuing up to await their turn. It is inviting to all, a businessman in his dark suit who wants to eat typical Newari 'Woh:'(traditional pancake); a bunch of boisterous teenagers who have to discuss their pressing social issues sit over 'Choyla and Chyang' (Spicy meat and local beer); a passerby who just felt a pang of hunger; an outsider who wants to savor new tastes; even a beggar whose entire day's earnings can buy him but a single delicacy from the hot stove.

Though tiny and seemingly of little consequence, this public space invokes all of the qualities and functions that define a successful vibrant public space, the sharing, the psychic nurturing, comfort, accessibility, a sense of security. The atmosphere is invariably amicable, encouraging interaction and communication between the familiar and the unfamiliar.This eatery with no name serves the community through the common denominators of hunger and the pleasures associated with addressing its requirements. It is not an architectural tour de force. It is simply a communal space with a magnetic draw, which addresses that undefined and yet recognizable sense of belonging so essential to the notion of a space that is truly public. Competing with other beautiful and architecturally inviting restaurants, this little eatery is by far the busiest. It audaciously denies the fallacy that frills and fashions are the only medium necessary to attract interest. Architects and planners must always be cognizant that above all the space must offer sustenance to man's most common instincts and needs. The senses must be employed when designing a space, for logic and aesthetics alone don't allow for the differing requirements of people whose other senses take precedence. They too must feel the invitation to participate.

I have often thought while standing in line waiting for a spot on which to perch, if only there were a little additional space, if only the road did not run adjacent to it, a few more benches could be installed to expand its capacity, but I always end up wondering if its magic might not be compromised.

Even the greatest and most successful of architects must surely recognize that there is always that element of magic that by its presence defines the truly great. One can only plan and design and employ the distinctions that are common to our knowledge of what works in the creation of public space, but there is another hand at work here, one that we recognize when it is present, and which we miss in its absence. It is distinctively human and yet beyond our capacity to define. In this cradle of so many of the great monuments to the spiritual life of mankind, maybe it is apt that such a crucial distinction should go undefined.


1.Theories and Manifestoes of Contemporary Architecture, Edited by Charles Jencks and Karl Kropf

2.Yard-Street-Park, The Design of Suburban Open Space, Cynthia L. Girling, Kenneth I. Helphand

3.Vaastu, An Annual Journal of Architecture, Published by the Department of Architecture, Institute of Engineering, Volume 6

4.Simple Taoism, C.Alexander Simpinks, Annellen Simpinks


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