“We shape our buildings and then buildings shape us.” – Winston Churchill
“Isolated buildings are symptoms of a disconnected sick society” – Christopher Alexander
As an architect and urban designer professionally tasked with creating outdoor rooms and shaping spaces that provide active opportunities for social interaction, I know creating great places from scratch is a very difficult task.
There are many kinds of open space types — squares, greens, commons, plazas, greenways — but one of the most charming and intimate is the courtyard. Generally, courtyards are small public spaces of a certain size and scale that humans feel comfortable spending time in.
On rare occasions, all of this comes together. This is the case with the outdoor courtyard space of the Common Market in South End. This courtyard is successful for many reasons, including the intimate scale of older smaller buildings and the episodic experience of being squeezed through the entry alley or by entering through the tight spaces of the interior store. You then open out into an expansive but still intimate human scale outdoor room — enclosed but not too enclosed.
Christopher Alexander, writing in a Pattern Language, has a short chapter on small public squares that includes that the most effective spaces are no larger than when you stand from one side to the other — about 75 feet across — a persons face is still recognizable. Therefore, psychologically, you feel comfortable and half-tied together and able to communicate with each other.
The Common Market courtyard is a small-scale public square with seating around the perimeter that creates an ideal scenario for people watching and socializing. This combined with good food and beverage makes it excellent. This is so rare in the city of Charlotte and that it will be almost impossible to replicate with a freestanding building sitting in a parking lot.
The best buildings are not objects. They are the ones that are arranged in a way that they come together to form the walls to the outdoor rooms we all love so much. Sometimes this is referred to as liminal space — the space in between buildings that offers a threshold into a different place.
Adding to the liminality is the historic character and gritty quality of old brick, the combination of bulky wooden anchoring tables and light weight flexible seating, trees and perimeter canopies, as well as old brick and weather wood textured surfaces add to the experience.
Part of the reason why we love spending time in the Common Market courtyard is because it takes us to a different place. It is not sterile and is not corporate in character*. It is civic by design.
*The one well known remaining space in Charlotte that does this is Brevard Court. It’s amazing that that space has not been replaced (yet) by a 60 story building. We are very fortunate.