The Man Who Coated Cars in Asphalt Wants Vibrant Public Spaces

James Wines, whose firm, Site, has done more than 150 architecture and art projects around the world and won many awards.

In the 1970s, James Wines was a radical who got a lot of attention for his “ghost” parking lot in Hamden, Conn., which he created by pouring asphalt over 20 cars. Since then, his firm, Site, has done more than 150 architecture and art projects around the world and won many awards.

Throughout his career, Mr. Wines has proselytized for enticing public space, something he finds depressingly rare in the United States. These days, he sounds more like a romantic and a lover of the Italian past than a radical. But maybe loving the piazzas of Rome is radical in a world where most public space consists of sterile concrete plazas decorated with the “lollipop” trees that he so passionately disdains.

After attending his recent keynote speech at a weekend event at MAD, the Museum of Arts and Design, I wanted to hear more, and he agreed to meet me at the NoHo Star, a trendsetter in the early 1980s, when he was already living in the SoHo loft he still occupies. TRISH HALL

Q. Are there any public spaces in New York that you like?

A. There was some movement in the Bloomberg administration to make existing spaces more habitable. But there isn’t real dedication. Developers should have some rigorous requirements where they have to bring in people to do something imaginative.

You need trigger elements that educate people, encourage their participation.

Like what?

You need things that make people invent their own games — where you have something in the pavement or park or garden that attracts their attention, like the Children’s Plaza we did for the Yokohama railway station in Japan. People climb all over that. You can’t resist using it. The plaza is like a fairy tale, with fiberglass legs and cars and bikes sticking up. You give them a little substance, they really do a lot.

In the United States, there’s a routine cast of characters that appears in all these things. The building is kind of the mounted piece of sculpture on the pedestal and the public space comes in as an afterthought, like what’s left over, and they handed it off.

Why does that happen?

I lived in Italy for a long time, and the thing I noticed the most in coming back from Europe is that those cities were conceived from the outset with the idea that there will be a public domain. New York evolved as an economic force on a grid and primarily for opportunism. It’s very difficult after the fact to take that paving grid view of the world and loosen it up.

If you were working on the West Side development in New York, on Hudson Yards, what would you have to do to trigger creativity? What would make me want to go there?

There are some very basic classic ingredients you should have in a public space. Shade, clusters of large trees, areas where people can go and be romantic and private. It’s really like orchestrating a drama. The people watching people is the raw material, much more than the concrete or the trees. The main thing is to understand that people are actors on the stage, they are spontaneous actors and you want to let them create their dramas.

Your favorite spaces are in Italy, aren’t they?

Those Renaissance and Baroque guys knew about the value of sunlight, creating light and shadow. Most public buildings, it just glances off the surface and that’s about it. I try to be as natural as possible. In Rome, everywhere you go, there is someplace to sit. Here, landscape is too contrived, it looks as cold and hard as the pavement itself. If people look good to each other in public space, they are much more likely to use it. You just activate them enough so they’re having enough fun that they’re smiling and active and engaged.

What new buildings do you like?

I like the Seagram Building.

Do you like any new buildings?

My office is on Maiden Lane, across from the World Trade Center. I have no desire to cross the street.

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