The Balancing Act: Public Space as a Healthful Counterweight to the Private Dwelling

A visual counterpart to the essay. 
Steven Worthington and Ruo Piao Chen

Public spaces have been used throughout history to promote the health of the existing community, in contrast to the privatization of domestic space. Although domestic spaces are more efficient when they exclude excess, non-private program, they also exclude interactive spaces which are crucial in fostering healthy relationships between members of an established community. Without a specialized communicative space, fragile residential blocks such as those surrounding Ariel Castro’s house in Cleveland, Ohio, reflect this fatal imbalance through the proliferation of crime and unhealthful behavior. Castro notoriously kept three women locked inside his “House of Horrors” for over a decade despite residential density in his neighborhood because there was a critical disjunction between members of the local community. By looking at three historical precedents: the Ming Dynasty in China (1368-1644), the development of Central Park in New York City (mid 1800s), and our own Syracuse University Quadrangle (1906), the social health of the established community (the family unit, residents of New York City, and Syracuse University students, respectively) relies on the effectiveness of that public space. The term “public,” then, argues not about the allocation of space to all members of society, but only equally and fairly to those who reside within this microcosmic community. The three spaces identified are indispensable modifiers of community health, both physically and psychologically.

From An International Perspective

The Siheyuan (Courtyard-style house), Ming China, 1368-1644, Ming Dynasty

Image 1: The inner courtyard is depicted as the central node of communication in a typical Siheyuan housing complex.

The Siheyuan, or courtyard-style house, was developed in the Ming Dynasty as both as a reflection of and response to the prevailing social hierarchy and class-segregated private dwelling. Because the Ming Dynasty was the first Dynasty of Chinese rule after the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, Ming rulers placed emphasis on stabilizing the Chinese social structure. The civil service examination was reestablished, producing members of the gentry that were given clear distinction from the farmers and laborers. The heavy stratification and disengagement between social classes produced a need for a communicative nodal dwelling. Therefore, the Siheyuan, which was first introduced in the Liao Dynasty (916-1125), was revitalized and subsequently matured as a house type in the Ming Dynasty. The Siheyuan is a rectilinear perimeter house with windows facing a central, rectangular courtyard space. A continuous masonry wall wraps around the outer perimeter of the house, a wall with only one access gate to the interior space. An absence of glazing on this wall creates a symbolic and physical division between interior and exterior space. Because the Siheyuan was designed to focus on a single (but large) family dwelling, this housing type sacrifices true public interaction in exchange for the development of an exclusive community. The Siheyuan is the driving force of social health and interaction in contrast to the imposed Ming hierarchy.

Watch an animated video about a typical Siheyuan here.

The Siheyuan is substratified by the division of program in a layered format. The thread that binds these horizontal layers of program is the circulatory space of the central courtyard.
The Siheyuan is substratified by the division of program in a layered format. The thread that binds these horizontal layers of program is the circulatory space of the central courtyard.

Within the unit of a single Siheyuan, the courtyard functions as the social nucleus and bridges family class subdivisions. Despite acting as the counterforce to the imperial class system, the allocation of program as viewed in plan is in fact a reflection of the permeating social system, since each Siheyuan is split into four houses based on the far-reaching social hierarchy that favors elders over youth and males over females. For example, the principal house (usually facing the most desired South view) is reserved for the head of the family, while the eldest son lives in the Eastern-wing. The other two houses are reserved for daughters and servants. The only space in which all members of the family can come across each other is the central courtyard. This courtyard space, then, is crucial in counterbalancing the specialized privatization occurring in the housing unit. In order for different family members to interact with each other, they must utilize this common space (see image 1). Corridors did not exist inside the dwelling, so a need for circulation and small talk determined the utilization of the central space. As the planar bridge between the four different houses, the courtyard neutralizes identity by physically moving people of different classes through a common location. The creation of an effective balance between private dwelling, which is dependent on the ruling class’ decisions, and public space, which is dependent on the human tendency to develop communities, was thus created in as small a scale as vernacular architecture in 14-17th century China.

To The Lens of a Famous American City

Central Park, New York City, completed 1873, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux 

Central Park, first opened 1857 and expanded in 1873 in New York City, is another example of a public space that arose as a response to the privatization of domestic quarters. Due to a rapidly increasing city population and inversely decreasing dwelling size per capita, city residents sought spaces with open air to escape from the increasingly dense and confining architecture. Streets, which had previously been used as public spaces (predating the invention of the automobile in 1886), were no longer effective due to the flood of the increasing population. As a result of this quest for a “get-away” space, residents began to lurk in institutions such as cemeteries, a clear but unsettling demonstration of a dire need for public space. Central Park was conceived by city planning as a solution to this visible and undeniable reaction to the change in private dwelling. European criticisms of the lack of civic duty in the individualistic American also acted as a determining factor in the proposition of the space, which had previously been a residential district. Initially, the large area was unsafe and largely unused, lacking any program, effective circulation, or landscaping. As program such as playgrounds and ball courts were introduced, the public began to utilize park facilities as the designers intended. In addition to psychological health, the multivaried outdoor program in spaces such as the Dust Bowl makes for a great way to keep users physically active (see comparison between Image 3 and Image 4). Joggers can be seen from dawn to dusk at the Resevoir, and surrounding high schools such as Hunter College High School often use the park as a location for outdoor rollerblading and ice skating classes. Despite a brief period of poor maintenance between the 1960s and 70s, the park has maintained a respectable condition through fundraising and publicity campaigns. The park is now an undeniable landmark of New York City, and a model public space in urban America. In addition, the park abolished the European critique of a self-centered America and exemplified the potential of Americans to create an effective balance of private and public space within the city. The great value of this space today is attributed to not only the social and physical health of the residents, but also the economic health of the New York City tourist industry. Central Park keeps the community tied to the civic cause of maintaining it and keeping it alive, and also gives the city a unique sense of identity and community, which would not have been possible without this key space. See a detailed list of attractions in Central Park here.

A Map of Central Park in 1875.
Image 3: A Map of Central Park in 1875.
A current map of Central Park. New program has been injected, including not only sports facilities but also concert and cultural spaces.
Image 4: A current map of Central Park. New program has been injected, including not only sports facilities but also concert and cultural spaces.


And Finally, Our Own School

Syracuse University Quadrangle, Syracuse, New York, 1906, Frederick Revels, Earl Hallenbeck

Cooper Union, New York City, 2004-2009, Morphosis

From a local perspective, university and institutional quadrangles, much like that of Syracuse University’s, act as a center of community gathering and interaction as well as a means of student representation. The Syracuse University Quadrangle was developed as part of a 1906 master plan by School of Architecture professors Frederick Revels and Earl Hallenbeck in order to create an environment that fostered healthy relationships among the students. As a response to the construction of two new dormitories, Haven Hall and Winchell Hall (now demolished), that created a northern boundary for the campus, the architects decided to turn the quad into a means of centralizing student activity. The quadrangle typology is characterized as a rectangular, open space completely or partially enclosed by buildings of an academic or civic character. Traditionally intended to be an environment of contemplation, and relaxation, quadrangles additionally transformed into a space for recreation and club events. The incorporation of the quadrangle persists today, even as the contemporary urban landscape boasts an unprecedented density of population. Space is scarce and in high demand, so architects often translate the horizontal public space that is the traditional quadrangle into vertical public spaces, such as the grand central staircase of Cooper Union in New York City.

Revels and Hallenbeck campus plan for Syracuse University, 1906. Haven and Winchell halls, the two dormitories that first defined the Northern boundary of the campus, were later demolished.
Image 5: Revels and Hallenbeck campus plan for Syracuse University, 1906. Haven and Winchell halls, the two dormitories that first defined the Northern boundary of the campus, were later demolished.

To see an example of a major student event on the Syracuse Quad, watch this video.

41 Cooper Square interior, by Morphosis. The horizontal planar public space is transformed into a vertical space through the strategic use of program and circulation.
Image 6: 41 Cooper Square interior, by Morphosis. The horizontal planar quadrangle is transformed into a vertical space through the strategic use of program and circulation.

The insistent preservation of the quadrangle, even in an evolved form, demonstrates a recognition from architects and the public that public space is a valuable asset to any community. It has become a 21st century standard to incorporate public space into institutionalized architecture, because public space fosters healthy relationships between its users. The same need that the Syracuse quadrangle was developed to fulfill is unchanged from the 20th century to the modern day.






In the three examples listed, a similar type of interactive space was developed in response to the creation of new domestic spaces. In the Siheyuan, the courtyard became necessary because period housing was meant to be enclosed and cut off from public streets. For Central Park, the residents of New York City were slowly densifying into massive apartment complexes, and urban planners saw the need for residents to have a get-away space. Otherwise, residents would continue to lurk around other outdoor accessible spaces such as cemeteries. The emergence of the quadrangle as a reenactment of medieval cloisters in a monastery on college campuses not unlike ours further demonstrated the need for a community space. The lack of these spaces near residential areas may lead to an area of concern regarding the healthful development of psychology and physiology in a particular neighborhood, leading to a complete isolationist idea of domesticity. Ariel Castro’s neighborhood was poorly designed because it had a lot of mixed used private buildings intermingled with single and multi-family housing, with no effective public space. The creation of a public space might have increased alertness in the neighborhood and contributed to healthful social development that might have prevented a tragedy such as the Castro case, as demonstrated by international and domestic precedents throughout time.




Chen, Ruo Piao and Steven Worthington. “Ariel Castro: Shocking Side of American Fragmentation.” ARC134, Project 1. Last modified October 2013.
Blackmar, Elizabeth and Roy Rosenzweig. “Central Park History.” Last modified 2013.

Gumprecht, Blake. “The campus as a public space in the American college town.” Accessed October 13, 2013.

Hucker, Charles O. The Ming Dynasty: Its Origins and Evolving Institutions (Ann Arbor: Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1978).

Lo, Yu-Ngok. “Siheyuan and Hutongs: The Mass Destruction and Preservation of Beijing’s Courtyard Houses.” American Institute of Architects, Accessed October 14, 2013.

Olmstead, Frederick Law. Plan for Central Park. 1857. Orthographic plan. Accessed October 6, 2013.

Waxman, Sarah. “The History of Central Park.” Accessed October 13, 2013.

Wm. Theodore de Bary. Self and Society in Ming Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970).“Central Park.” Project for Public Spaces. Accessed October 6, 2013.

“Great Places in America: Public Spaces 2012.” American Planning Association. Accessed October 3, 2013.

“Ming Dynasty (1368-1644): Social Structure.” World Eras. Ed. Guangqiu Xu. Vol. 7: Imperial China, 617-1644. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 207-209. World History In Context. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.
“Plan of Siheyuan.” American Institute of Architects. Accessed October 13, 2013.
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“Syracuse University Campus Plan 2003.” Syracuse University Office of Design and Construction.
Accessed October 13, 2013.
Encyclopedia Brittanica Online, s.v. “quadrangle,” accessed October 13, 2013,

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