For Silver Spring's Downtown Centerpiece, Less Is More

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 12, 2007

If all goes according to plan, ground will be broken soon for the new Civic Building and Veterans Plaza in the heart of Silver Spring. This project will be the community's symbolic and functional centerpiece, the last yet most significant element to be built in fulfilling the vision of the downtown Silver Spring master plan, adopted seven years ago.

But the close-to-final design of this ample, though not immense, plaza, which includes a skating rink covered by an open pavilion, is being questioned by some residents. Is a skating rink operationally and economically viable? Will the pavilion limit use of the relatively intimate plaza or cast unwanted shadows? Should there be less concrete and more greenery within the plaza, making it more parklike?

Montgomery County sponsored a design competition four years ago to select the architect and a design concept. (I was the professional adviser to that competition.) Machado and Silvetti Associates, a Boston architecture firm, won.

Before the competition, the county government collaborated with Silver Spring civic groups, residents and local institutions to generate a detailed functional program for both the civic building and the plaza. Despite concerns expressed then about the skating rink and pavilion, they stayed in the plan.

After the county demolished a parking garage on the northern half of the site, the land's dimensions and scale became evident. Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive, lined by relatively new commercial buildings, abut the southern and western sides of the site. As a kind of place holder, the plaza portion of the site, its southern half, was covered temporarily with green artificial turf.

It turns out that this green-carpeted space attracts Silver Spring residents, workers and shoppers. Adults meet and socialize, picnic, sunbathe, read or pass time people-watching. Kids frolic or just hang out.

Happily, this activity validates the master plan: The location is well suited for creating an animated civic plaza, thanks to its accessibility, visibility, and proximity to retail and entertainment establishments.

But the activity is also why there are second thoughts about the original program and final design, about how the space will be used and whether it should be more like a green park.

Last weekend at a community forum in Silver Spring, discussion of these issues reminded me of a column I wrote 22 years ago, about the purpose and essential design characteristics of successful civic squares, plazas, circles and parks. I wrote about public urban spaces being successful only if they are situated where people feel comfortable and safe walking; are appropriately sized and legibly shaped; and, most important, are enlivened by surrounding stores, restaurants, entertainment venues and other destinations that are inviting day and night.

Two other attributes of animated urban spaces account for their aesthetic and functional success: incorporating well-designed elements integral to their form and sponsoring public activities frequently within the space.

Incorporated elements can include trees and planters; water features; fixed and movable seating; display kiosks; generous night lighting; and, as proposed in Silver Spring, pavilions and ice skating rinks.

Possibilities for scheduled activities are seemingly limitless: temporary markets, open-air concerts and films, theatrical performances, cultural festivals, exhibitions, community fairs, galas and public cookouts.

Silver Spring's site clearly satisfies location criteria. But the design by the Machado and Silvetti team also delivers aesthetically and functionally, enabling a rich mix of activities, including most of the ones taking place on the artificial turf.

At the site's northern half, the civic building will beautifully framed and, with its grand loggia, merge spatially with the plaza. The ice rink and pavilion are at the plaza's southeastern edge, near Ellsworth Drive, maximizing the sense of spaciousness. The rink seems about the right size for recreational skating, and its dimensions and placement near the front of the site are crucial to its success in contributing to the plaza's urban vitality.

The pavilion, one of the most controversial elements, is also what makes this civic site unique and memorable. An open, visually weightless, translucent canopy, it floats gracefully above the rink and touches the ground at only three points. In addition to sheltering the ice rink from winter precipitation, it will provide desirable shade in summer when the rink space accommodates eating and events.

A walkway lined with trees and benches, incorporating the Veterans Memorial panels by artist Toby Mendez, leads from the street to the civic building entry. Two slender, triangular lawns stretch along part of the site's edges. But should central portions of the paved plaza be grass or some other material -- artificial turf kept coming up -- on which people can comfortably sit or lie down, or where kids can romp without scuffing their knees?

Given the size and purpose of this space and the availability of other public green spaces -- parks and school playgrounds -- in Silver Spring, inserting islands of grass or other "soft" materials within Veterans Plaza would compromise the design's elegant simplicity, unity and programmatic flexibility.

The opening paragraph of my 1985 column is still relevant: "In creating a work of art, knowing what to omit is no less important than knowing what to include. Sometimes, it's the voids . . . woven into artful compositions that acquire the greatest significance."

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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