Piazza D’Italia – The Limits of Good Design

When I was in New Orleans for the American Planning Association conference in April, I stopped in to look at the Piazza D’Italia, the homage to the city’s Italian immigrants.  The Piazza opened in  1978 and was designed by Charles Moore and Perez and Associates.  It is of post-modern design,  it has certain similarities to Michael Grave’s Portland Public Service Building (1982) in its use of color and  neoclassicism.  The  piazza reminds me of the surrealist paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, who also used juxtapositions of columns and arches. The Piazza is famous for having been used as the opening scene in the movie, The Big Easy. It is one of the most interesting visits in a most interesting city.

And it is empty, devoid of people, abandoned.  Just off Canal,  a block or so from the French Quarter, between the Central Business District and the waterfront, it is surrounded by blank Modernist walls and parking lots. For me, it was nice that I could sit there for a couple of minutes alone, peacefully contemplating one of the best pieces of urban design on the 1970s.  But it is unnerving that it should be so utterly not seen.

The lesson is that no matter  how well designed a public space may be, context can trump it.  If no one is around to enjoy the space, if the surrounding urban fabric is not supportive of the space, it will not serve to increase walkability and social interaction.  The planners of the project had hoped for a revitalization of the area that would have provided supportive buildings around the Piazza, but this never happened.  So it is a unused jewel of a space.

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