Centrale Werkplaatsen, Leuven


There is some reticence in recognising a domestic appropriation of public space in cities.The various representations of cities – from the oldest paintings, to the postcard type photographs we all know today – seek a clean, almost aseptic record of public space, frequently excluding what gives them life, what validates them, who takes care of them: the people and their activities.

Public space as a sitting room, as a play-room or as a football pitch, but also as a yard, a kitchen-garden or as a place to hold a party, does not seem to have a place in the images we create of the city, even though we all know that these uses are as old, and as important as its very existence.

Aside from some rare exceptions – the main squares, the structuring boulevards of the urban fabric, exceptional in size, shape or representativeness –, public space exists in the city also as an extension of the interior of our homes. A public space derived from a private one, where informal, daily and, admittedly, common functions take place, generation after generation. Places that reject the aseptic character and which some still insist on purifying, because they exist precisely in organic, dynamic and spontaneous appropriation.

When we are faced with public spaces with a predicted usage of this kind, we should, as technicians, plan in such a way as to define a strong support structure – a structuring matrix –with a high degree of flexibility which makes it capable of accommodating all the different players, uses and appropriations. Basically, we must provide a project motto allowing its character to be constructed by successive superimposed layers of life.

The structuring route of the intervention area had quite a significant traffic component, a reason for our argument for the segregation of car and pedestrian. From the outer limit of the central park we defined a seven-meter strip, paved in concrete flags, destined for pedestrian use. The proposal of superimposing wooden boxes on the pavement layout, was derived from the need to create conditions for pedestrian appropriation – the boxes were, basically, a barrier of separation from the cars, but could also be benches, tree pits or steps. The design and layout of these boxes were designed to encourage permeability between the street and the park, allowing people to enter the green space without the need of a specific door.

The solutions for the streets between the new constructed volumes, narrower and for local access were centred on the creation of mixed use spaces – the shared spaces – where pedestrian, cyclist and car could coexist. Spaces where people would feel comfortable and safe –just like inside their homes; simple and flexible spaces, authentic exterior living-rooms, where cars could sometimes pass, but where the pedestrians could enjoy indisputable priority.

The materials chosen for the paving – concrete in the central boulevard to allow the passing of traffic, and wood in the pedestrian side-streets – were naturally tied to aesthetic factors of great plasticity, but they were, above all, tied to the creation of conditions of comfort, proximity and control, in an attempt to have them function as the hallways of the adjacent dwellings. Such conditions were exacerbated by the use of informal and suitable urban furniture –, concrete cobble-stones, and again wooden boxes as well as a ‘protective ceiling’ of vegetation

The absence of traffic-signs, traffic lights or traffic marks on the pavement would make its contribution to the clear statement that cars were not in a conventional street-space, but merely crossing these spaces to access the underground parking facilities.

Thus, pedestrian priority became the prevailing rule in the design of the entire public space. The pedestrian would be the starting point for the definition of aims for the uses of this reconverted place. He would lead us to rhythms, metrics, and distances in the context of the master-plan, and therefore to the definition of a public space as a livingroom, a hallway, a place of domestic appropriation.

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