The Layered Experience of Public Space: A Study of the New York Public Library

Presented by: William Mangold

Public space is often represented and interpreted in a binary way: solid/void, public/private. This paper attempts to articulate the lived experience of space as more nuanced and heterogeneous. Space is encoded with multiple layers of architectural, social, and psychological markers that make for varying degrees, expressions, and feelings of “public.” Grounded in a case study of the New York Public Library, the layered character of inhabitable space is theorized in three related registers. The first looks at boundaries and thresholds, as both architectural elements and social configurations to recognize how and where these features are deployed to distinguish spaces and experiences. The second approach takes up the theoretical distinction between “space” and “place” to understand that the concept of space tends toward universality and abstraction, thereby reducing or erasing the specific conditions and nuanced character of place. The third draws upon Lefebvre’s tripartite scheme to argue that in reducing discourse to a public/private binary, the top-down representations of space are privileged over the lived conditions of spatial practice or the transformative potential of representational spaces. Building from this theoretical work, the paper engages the notion of “found” or “loose” public space proposed by Karen Franck and Leanne Rivlin, specifically as they articulate the conditions at the New York Public Library. Franck and Rivlin suggest that the library steps can be considered a found space because they provide a range of options for use varying from anonymous, impersonal behavior to people watching to active engagement with entertainers, vendors, or other persons. They argue that the looseness of the library steps maximizes the choices and freedoms of people in public space. While they recognize the variegated experience of public space, to some extent they miss the ways in which these experiences are structured through boundaries and thresholds. The design of this environment affords specific degrees of privacy and types of public engagement within the continuum of built public space. Study of the main branch building of the New York Public Library, designed by the firm of Carrere and Hastings and completed in 1911, is instrumental in understanding the diverse character of public space. Through a series of analytical drawings, this presentation demonstrates that the space around and inside the New York Public Library is a highly articulated and intentional layering of architectural space that allows for a range of uses and conditions of “public.” Through documented site observations as well as analysis of archival drawings and project notes, research shows the specific characteristics of the spaces of the NYPL are achieved through a series of boundaries and thresholds that constitute the degree to which the spaces are public. The sequence of spaces—from sidewalk to reading room—produces a continuum of experiences between public to private. Individual moments or spaces within this continuum can be further analyzed to understand the specific features that inform the character of the place and the opportunities or constraints on lived experience. The method of analysis employed is intentionally simple: demarcation of the architectural thresholds and boundaries of social activity. But in so doing, the shifting character of the spaces reveals that “public” is a varied experience and does not exist as a binary condition with “private”. The simplicity of the methodology also suggests that it could be readily applied as a way of interpreting a range of spaces to more fully understand the notion of the public interior.


  • Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Wiley-Blackwell. 1991.
  • Franck, Karen and Quentin Stevens, eds. Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life. Routledge. 2007.
  • Miller, Kristine. Designs on the Public: The Private Lives of New York’s Public Spaces. Univ of Minnesota Press. 2007.
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