An improvised marketplace, a handsome park pavilion, a patch of musical pavement. When we came up with this multifarious grouping of our favourite public spaces, we thought of the variety of projects that have enlivened and bettered our shared realms. These types of interventions come in many shapes, sizes and functions. What they share in common is that they enhance what exists — whether it’s a city centre, a new cultural institution, a natural landscape — with an unexpected amenity that is open to all.
These 10 works are projects that exist somewhere between the institutional and the commercial, the cultural and the recreational. They show what happens when we bring imagination to our cities, when we view them as our collective project constantly being adapted and improved for everyone’s wellbeing.
- Manifesto Market, Prague by Chybik + Kristof
- Forest Pavilion, Winnipeg, by Public City Architecture
- Tallinn Cruise Terminal Rooftop, Tallinn, Estonia, by Stuudio Tallinn with Salto Architects
- Exchange Square, London, by DSDHA
- Sainte-Catherine St. West and Phillips Square, Montreal by Provencher Roy
- Kamwokya Community Centre, Uganda by Kéré Architecture
- Hiking Shelters in Victoria, Australia, by Noxon Giffen and McGregor Coxall
- Cimbalom, Budapest, Hungary, by Daily tous les jours
- Diwan Pavilion at the Aga Khan Garden in Edmonton, by AXIA Design Associates and Arriz + Co
- Art Sauna, Mänttä, Finland, by Hector Mendoza, Mara Partida and Boris Bežan
A city is a work in progress — but progress is often painfully slow. Even in the most vibrant and high-demand urban centres, land can sit empty for years. For Prague-based hospitality brand Manifesto Market (which we first covered in September), gaps in the urban fabric present an opportunity to create a temporary destination. Over the last four years, the company — founded by landscape architect Martin Barray, who also heads up urban design non-profit reSITE — has transformed brownfield sites into vibrant hubs of food and drink.
In 2022, design took centre stage. In the capital’s Smichov district, Manifesto partnered with celebrated Czech architects Chybik + Kristof to create a striking temporary marketplace that can easily be taken apart and re-assembled. Inspired by the layout of a traditional Czech courtyard apartment building, the outdoor food hall’s aqua blue scaffolding signalled an eclectic and welcoming destination.
Decked out with lighting, signage, plant life, speakers and a showpiece wading pool, the simple kit of steel scaffolding, corrugated aluminum sheets and wooden platform flooring created an elegant summer hangout spot — animated by popular local bars and restaurants. Here’s to summer 2023 at Manifesto Market — wherever it turns up next.
Across Canada and the United States, parks seldom feel like they truly belong to the public. And while the pandemic spurred a much-needed reckoning with policing and public safety, the lack of adequate infrastructure remains a civic failing. To wit: where are the restrooms? In two of the wealthiest countries in the world, you’re always thinking there better be a Starbucks nearby…
In Winnipeg, however, Public City Architecture’s Forest Pavilion demonstrates a dignified, stylish and climate-resilient model for democratizing public parks.
Constructed in the floodway of the Red River in Crescent Drive Park, the wood-clad structure houses a trio of public washrooms alongside a comfortable shaded hallway for the hot months and a passively ventilated insulated space that offers both a summer and winter respite. Finally, an open-air gathering space — completed with a central fire feature — offers up a community hearth.
Built to FEMA flood design standards, the structure can withstand being completely submerged (below the floodline) without decaying, while the site’s carefully articulated topography is designed to shed flooding water. The winner of a 2022 RAIC Governor General’s Medal in Architecture, the pavilion is also a landmark — it’s five-metre-tall screen walls forming a contextually sensitive beacon in the local landscape. Mechanically fastened onto the structure, the sustainably sourced rough-sawn fir is designed to be easily replaced, making for a sustainable, evolving presence. And true to form, no trees were felled during construction.
The recently completed cruise terminal in Tallinn, Estonia, succeeds on multiple levels — literally. While the base building provides travellers with elegant and efficient transportation infrastructure, the rooftop level extends the project’s appeal by introducing an elevated seaside park. Part of a growing trend of public space designers making better use of rooftop real estate, the social hub by Stuudio Tallinn and Salto Architects combines playground equipment, an exercise area and amphitheater-style seating that makes a great vantage point for admiring ocean waves. These elevated attractions are all accessed via a series of sloped ramps that connect to a landscaped promenade running along the shoreline — part of a larger master plan being developed by Zaha Hadid Architects.
With its angular planes, the concrete cruise terminal effectively mimics the rocky coastline in front of it. On the other hand, the building’s upper level park counteracts this rugged identity by making strategic use of warm wood features to foster a more inviting — yet still nautical-inspired — atmosphere. Fostering stronger connections between Tallinn’s residents and the city’s waterfront, the resulting public space is a perfect demonstration of how a city can design a space that appeals to tourists and locals alike.
Walk past the recently revitalized Exchange Square in London’s Broadgate area at lunch hour on a weekday, and you’re bound to find a crowd of office workers putting the lush green space to good use. But the park also has broader appeal. This past summer, it even managed to draw families into the city’s fintech district to make regular use of its misting stations and wading pools during the city’s heat wave. Indeed, the real success of DSDHA’s landscaping scheme — which reimagines a previous greenspace that felt comparatively drab and cluttered — lies in the high level of consideration that the firm paid to diverse user groups.
As Giovanna Dunmall describes in our recent coverage of the project, Exchange Square’s central new social amphitheater is thoughtfully balanced by quieter corners that focus on gentle scents, sounds and textures chosen to appeal to the neurodivergent community. (In total, the site now includes four times as much greenery as it used to, with plant selections inspired by the salt marshes of England’s East Anglia region.) It also helps that the destination is so accessible: Located directly above the Liverpool Street station train tracks on a hefty concrete slab, Exchange Square is easy to reach by transit, while new ramps throughout the park facilitate improved ease of mobility. In other words, while DSDHA have succeeded at serving the corporate crowd that work in the park’s immediate vicinity, they have also created a true civic destination ready to host the city at large. After all, when was the last time that a parent planned to bring their kids to spend the afternoon next to a banking tower?
With its European charm, Montreal is often touted as one of Canada’s most walkable cities. And yet, until recently, one of its primary commercial arteries, Rue Sainte-Catherine West, was described as “car-centred and run-down.” Thanks to local firm Provencher Roy, six blocks of this four-lane thoroughfare have been revived as a pedestrian-friendly promenade with just one lane of car traffic. By eliminating street parking, the firm significantly widened the sidewalks, creating a “linear plaza” that links previously disconnected landmarks. Bronze plates set into the street identify historic buildings, namely turn-of-the-century department stores like Birks Jewellers and Eatons, that have shaped the site.
To improve safety, modular paving ranging from dark to light grey indicates zones designed exclusively for walking and those shared with cars and cyclists. Throughout, sleek new street furniture by Quebec industrial designer Michel Dallaire establishes a new visual identity along the route, connecting it to its local context.
Provencher Roy’s urban intervention also includes the expansion and revitalization of Phillips Square as a contemporary interpretation of Victorian gardens, with lush flowerbeds juxtaposed by rougher plantings in soft hues. But the project is not just a beautiful public amenity — it also strives towards a more sustainable urban realm. In addition to preserving the existing trees, Provencher Roy has increased the vegetation by 46 per cent (with species resilient enough to withstand urban pollution). The firm also implemented a low-level irrigation system for the flower beds and a recirculated water system to reduce waste, while reflective materials mitigate the heat island effect. Promoting walking, cycling and accessibility, Provencher Roy has enhanced the pedestrian experience to solidify the site as “an integral part of the downtown core” once again.
We would be remiss not to include this thoughtful project by 2022 Pritzker Prize winner, Diébédo Francis Kéré. The Kamwokya Community Centre is a prime example of the virtues that solidified the Burkina Faso-born architect as this year’s honoree: “empowering and transforming communities through the process of architecture.” Located in one of the poorest areas of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, this public space is the result of a partnership between local non-profit Kamwokya Christian Caring Community and the Ameropa Foundation. Its design expertly merges the two organizations’ missions — the former which runs sports, leisure and artistic activities and the latter which works to improve the lives of marginalized communities through international initiatives.
To address the region’s pervasive flooding, the entire site has been raised on a platform fitted with an efficient draining system and subdivided through slight elevation changes to enable multiple activities — everything from sports training and dance classes to community events and workshops — to take place simultaneously. Surrounding the shaded sports court, the heart of the project, steps take the place of traditional bleachers, offering a vibrant social space to watch games. Two naturally ventilated buildings on the platform host a gym, an internet café, multi-purpose rooms, a music studio, an office and a sanitary block. In a signature Kéré move, the buildings’ raised butterfly roofs are both a key design feature and a practical solution to improve airflow.
In addition to its more structured programs, the space is equally well-positioned to foster the spontaneous gatherings that form the basis of a community. It’s a social hub that its users have been empowered to take ownership over, fulfilling the project’s goal “to maintain and enhance the public and free character of the site, seeking not to impose, but to gently uplift it.”
Over 160 kilometres of pristine wilderness await hikers who embark upon the Grampians Peaks Trail in Victoria, Australia. But up until recently, there was nowhere for them to take a load off. That has changed with the arrival of 10 shelters along the route, which traverses the lands of three Indigenous owners and includes a trio of regional council jurisdictions.
Parks Victoria worked closely with the guardians of the land to define the guidelines for each intervention. And the architects worked within these boundaries to devise a series of small buildings that stand as modest marvels against a wondrous natural backdrop.
The structures include a communal hiker shelter, amenities pods and Gariwerd camp huts. They provide basic amenities to allow hikers to have a temporary refuge, for a night or two, on their journey. What makes them special is that each was conceived uniquely; the architects employed a restrained palette of locally available materials like oxidised steel, sandstone, bushfire-charred or weathered timber to design a motley variety of welcoming buildings. Along this magnificent natural route, hikers encounter them as follies of the landscape – every individual one its own delightful surprise.
In Liget Park, near Sou Fujimoto’s House of Music – and on one of the many concrete islets shaped after the building – the Montreal studio Daily tour les jours has created Cimbalom. The permanent interactive artwork is named after a stringed instrument invented in Budapest in 1874. And to the delight of visitors and passersby, it is a truly musical experience.
Embedded into the concrete tiles are 36 interactive units, each including a sensor and a responsive light ring. Tapped upon – with a foot, a hand, a wheel or what have you – these units fill the air with sounds corresponding to various instruments: the cimbalom itself in the central circle of interactive tiles, as well as a guitar, a kalimba, a vibraphone, a bass, a harp and a piano. Tapping multiple sensors allows people to play arpeggios, compose numerous melodies, the experience of the installation changing with every visit. Enhancing the sense of play, the integrated LEDs allow for patterns of light to be conjured simultaneously.
Daily tous les jours has been imagining convivial scenarios like these in public spaces around the world since 2010. They’ve placed their Musical Swings in nine cities since the first ones went up in Montreal’s entertainment district in 2011; their Walk Walk Dance brought a massive simulacrum of a piano to the Bentway in Toronto last year, just as the pandemic was at its height and people were craving a sense of release; and the city of South Bend, Indiana, just inaugurated their Daydreamer series of sonorous benches. Their works are constant reminders that play isn’t just for kids – it’s for everyone – and that our shared spaces should encourage it.
The crowning jewel of the 4.8-hectare Aga Khan Garden by Nelson Byrd Woltz at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the Diwan Pavilion is a poetic architectural work. An understated expression – low slung and clad in light stone – it represents the final step in the master plan and makes a formal complement to the garden’s geometric array of forest paths, granite and limestone terraces and still pools.
“The architectural design ‘offsets’ some of the symmetries of the Aga Khan Garden while adhering to others,” says AXIA, “to balance the formal garden context with the pavilion’s internal function.”
The facade of the multi-purpose space and event venue creates balance with stone panels at alternating orientations, vertical and horizontal, and subtle variations in tone. This creates a handsome yet restrained canvas for the main architectural embellishment: In honour of traditional Islamic design, the overhang is animated by intricately patterned screens, recalling the mashrabiya, that filter daylight in windows. This gesture adds beauty and meaning to a restrained and resolutely modern building.
Everyone should have access to a sauna. That’s the thinking behind Art Sauna, on the grounds of the Serlachius Museum Gösta. Conceived as “a continuation of the emotional journey” of the museum, the sauna allows museum visitors to fully immerse themselves in a sensorial experience.
The sauna protrudes from the slope that descends towards the lakeshore as a series of diagonal concrete planes topped with a green roof that further embeds it into the setting. Inside, the lobby features an oak ceiling formed by arched vaults and – in one of the moves that brings art directly into the experience – Satu Rautiainen’s large-scale commissioned work Birds’ Drinking Place. A round steam room, made of thermo aspen, features benches that merge with the walls – forming their own sculptural statement. For design lovers, there are also beautiful discoveries to be had, in pieces by Patricia Urquiola, Jasper Morrison and Faye Toogood as well as by such renowned Finnish designers as Alvar Aalto and Markku Sale.
These works – public, commercial, cultural and recreational – brought joy and comfort to our shared spaces.