THE MOOD SWINGS OF A SMALL URBAN SPACE
A park goes from deserted walkway to crowded dance floor,
all in a single day.
By Morris Newman
C/O Jill Connelly
Chess Park is a reminder that real-life urban spaces donít
always follow the scripts imagined for them by their designers.
Located in the downtown area of Glendale, an older Los
Angeles suburb of 300,000 people, the 4,500-square-foot park was designed to
become a magnet for chess enthusiasts. The city has a large population of
Armenian immigrants, many of whom are expert players who study the game with
single-minded devotion. The park was intended partly as a means to provide a
practice and tournament site for the Glendale AAA Chess Club.
Notable for its 28-foot-tall ďlanternsĒ modeled after chess
pieces, Chess Park seemingly follows a surefire formula for a popular small
park: The plaza is located off the main business boulevard of this city located
a few miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Traffic is thick on the boulevard
until late in the evening, and the sidewalks are alive, if not crowded, with
pedestrians. For better or worse, Chess Park is a two-sided spaceódefined by
buildings to the north and south and open on the east and west. The park serves
as a through space for people walking between an alley and adjoining public
parking on the west and Brand Boulevard on the east, with plentiful retail,
office space, restaurants, and entertainment venues, including a concert stage
almost directly across the street from the park. The long and narrow dimensions
of the park set up a tension between the contrary roles of corridor and
destination. Those same dimensions, however, are a good fit for public events,
both planned and spontaneous.
Turns out the park isnít quite the chess mecca it was
intended to be. But that doesnít mean the park is a flop: It has become a home
for activities as varied (and exotic) as a city-sponsored Polynesian dance
exhibition and an unofficial weekly dance contest for teenagers. Through the
cycle of a single day, the park seems to change personalities, from that of a
shortcut to one of the most crowded and exciting spots in the city. And while
design by itself obviously cannot create behavior, the design and dimensions of
Chess Park likely play a role in both its occasional drawbacks and its
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