Designing Successful Neighborhood Squares. Part 5. Entrances, thresholds

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

The entrance into a neighborhood square is designed to create the experience that you have arrived at the heart of the community, and that you need go no further. A vista into the square from an adjacent street should reveal the life on the square, the sunlight, bright umbrellas, children playing, a couple enjoying a glass of wine, etc. It should not reveal that there is any destination beyond the square.

Emphasizing the drama of arrival, access ways are small, inconspicuous, and angled in such a way that there is no direct view out of the space.[1] Entrances are like doorways into a room. They create a clear threshold between inside and out. Crossing the threshold enhances the awareness of moving from a street (a place of movement) into a place for pausing, lingering, socializing, playing. Behavior changes as you enter: you stop thinking about where you have to go next; you slow down, look around, start living in the present moment, enjoying the sights and sounds, the sun on your face, the voice of a friend, the aromas from a restaurant.

Upon entering from any direction, there is no immediately obvious exit.  And yet there are entrances on all sides/corners. As you become more familiar with the square, you discover many inconspicuous entrances and exits beneath archways, through arcades, up a flight of steps, etc. A large neighborhood square needs many small entrances allowing pathways from all directions to cross in the square, bringing the community together.

Camillo Sitte pointed to the advantages of entrances at the corners arranged like “turbine arms”, with exits all pointing in different directions. This helps to conceal exits as you arrive in the square, and it was a common principle in ancient city building. He also emphasized that this principle should not be rigidly uniform, which could be boring and commonplace.

The square must be accessible for everyone: adults, children, women, prams and strollers, older people, and those with limited mobility and in wheelchairs. The square cannot function democratically if segments of the population are prevented access. This has implications for the design of entrances to the square from every direction. If one entrance is via a slight of steps, there must be another route in a similar direction that is stroller-friendly.

Entrances may be concealed beneath arcades, as in Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, or beneath sottoporteghi, as in Venice.  Passing through a dark arch heightens the experience of crossing the threshold and raises one’s awareness of entering the public arena. This threshold experience has been remarked upon by many urban scholars, especially in relation to Venice’s Piazza San Marco and Siena’s Piazza Il Campo.[2]

Campo Santa Margherita

Some of the most successful neighborhood squares in the world contain many entrances, large and small. Campo Santa Margherita has 19 entrances, all told. Three of these (to the north to Rialto, to the east to Accademia, and to the south to the church of the Carmini), but one of the most used entrance is a narrow street, Calle del Forno that leads west to the railway station. The smallest entrances are from nearby housing.

There are private and semiprivate entrances too. A secondary entrance to an apartment or condo building gives residents a short cut into the square; entrances to shops and restaurants, townhouses above the shops, to civic and commercial buildings all bring people into the square.

 

Zilverpand, Bruges is a series of interconnected squares created by combining all the open spaces on the interior of an existing block. The main square has many entrances. On east and west are the main entrances beneath buildings that connect to underground parking and adjacent streets; several arched openings lead from public corridors through surrounding buildings; many shops and cafes open off the square, and a wider opening to the south leads to the other squares and public spaces.

The vista into the square is critical. It must provide a view of sunlight, people, and activity; it must not be a view of a blank wall. The shape of the entrance, and the way the vista is “framed” is also important: it is undoubtedly more appealing to enter through an archway with human proportions than beneath a wide, low slung horizontal slab that seems to bear down on you. The archway is uplifting; the slab is oppressive.

Alleyways leading to the square between tall buildings should be well lit with active facades and small shops along their length, helping to draw the pedestrian towards the square. If the buildings on either side are too high, making the entranceway feel canyon-like, the experienced height can be reduced to more human proportions with a trellis, or overarching plants (trees, rambling roses, wisteria, etc).

Vigevano

In many Italian cities during the Renaissance, the local princes took aesthetic control of the appearance of their town’s piazzas by insisting that the individually shaped facades should be improved with the application of a continuous colonnade and new façade around the square. These colonnades hid from view the narrow streets that led into the square and provided the arched “doorway” experience on entering from an adjoining street.

An arcade with small shops and restaurants on either side may also be created as an entrance to the square through a building. However, this has the disadvantage that it may be closed at night, thus limiting free access, so it should not be considered a primary entrance.

 

See Part 6: Surrounding building heights/proportions



[1]   Camillo Sitte, City Planning According to Artistic Principles. Translated by George R. Collins & Christiane Crasemann Collins. Random House, New York, 1965. p. 34.

[2]   G.E. Kidder Smith, Italy Builds, pp. 48, 74