The New Harvey Milk Plaza: Designing Public Spaces for Civic Participation

The winning design for Harvey Milk Plaza included a tiered rise for public expression, lanterns inspired by candlelight vigils, and a winding path through the story of Harvey Milk's life and legacy. (Image: Perkins Eastman)  

The winning design for Harvey Milk Plaza included a tiered rise for public expression, lanterns inspired by candlelight vigils, and a winding path through the story of Harvey Milk's life and legacy. (Image: Perkins Eastman)  

San Francisco’s Castro district has been a gathering place for activists of every stripe for decades. And the corner of Castro and Market Streets is the crossroads of this historic neighborhood. So in November 2016, the Friends of Harvey Milk Plaza launched a design competition to commemorate Harvey Milk here, just a few blocks from the iconic figure’s former camera store and apartment.

After a year of vigorous debate over 33 entries, a winner was chosen: Perkins Eastman whose design imagined “a vibrant, active, living place that more fittingly honors Harvey Milk’s charismatic spirit and legacy as a community energizer and a vocal activist.”

Designers McCall Wood and Justin Skoda called their rising, tiered amphitheater a “human-activated place” because, beyond meeting the basic criteria of the competition, it serves the needs of rallies, public assemblies, and soap-boxers. I had the honor of interviewing Wood and Skoda about their design, the legacy of Harvey Milk, and what makes a public space conducive to holding public assembly.

You accepted a challenge to rethink a historic location and honor Harvey Milk and his legacy. What first came to mind when you saw this opportunity and how did it evolve into your design?

McCall Wood: As architects, we thrive on being able to spatially, experientially, and emotionally explore the depths of the human mind, body, and spirit. For us, what first came to mind was, “We get to architecturally explore how to honor an iconic figure in the LGBTQ and civil rights community? Well, that’s pretty dang cool.” As architects, we understand that space (particularly space of memorials) can be passively viewed, actively engaged with, or emotionally felt. Building from this statement and adding to it an understanding of the different facets of Harvey Milk’s legacy, we desired to architecturally create a place that was not passive but, rather, actively alive and overflowing with his spirit. It was through his vocal activism and his ability to gather his community, and with his charismatic spirit that Harvey brought hope to the LGBTQ community. He quite literally defines the concept of civitas, the concept of public, he believed in the binding connection we have with each other in the simple fact that we are all human and we are one.

From deeply exploring what Harvey stood for, the design evolved into an architectural expression of civitas and morphed into a place for the community to gather, engage, connect, learn, and emotionally feel with each other. The memorial to Harvey Milk is a place that literally lives in his spirit, because, as Harvey knew well, it is only by accepting civitas, the concept of public and the human connection that we shall have hope for a different future.

In your research, what did you learn about the role design plays in making public spaces conducive to first amendment expression?

Wood: We chose to create a memorial where you don’t have to pay to enter or need to be educated to participate. We physically manipulated space and form to allow a freedom of engagement to occur, regardless of age, sex, income, race, or background. As humans, we biologically desire to engage with each other in physical, verbal, visual, emotional, acoustic, or didactic ways. Engagement, community, and human connection are basic human rights that must be supported by design.

Our memorial design supports this basic human right and freedom of choice. Our design has places to learn, speak, listen, see, and connect. Visitors can support civitas and generate community in a way that resonates with them. The plaza is a living memorial to Milk: it is a place to connect with other humans because it is only with our connection to other humans and our sense of community and civitas that we can have hope for our future. Milk knew this concept well.

Justin Skoda: Spaces have to be open to all. That means few restrictions on when or how you can be in a space. Truly public spaces require that degree of openness and transparency and visibility. Part of the magic of cities is the collision and mixture of culture, thought and custom; physical public spaces where people can gather, see and be seen, and enjoy creates a shared sense of community and also exposes people to other ideas and cultures that they may be completely unaware of. Public space then becomes vital to a well-functioning democracy since it allows for a shared understanding and appreciation of those around you who are different than oneself. Through the lens of design, that means having a variety of experiences and places ‘to be’ within an urban space that can attract various demographic groups and offer something for many. Through an open design capable of handling multiple programmatic and cultural demands, expression and experience of that expression can be maximized and fostered.

The most recent iteration of Harvey Milk Plaza (Image: Perkins Eastman)

How do you see people using this space? Or, how might the way people interact with Harvey Milk Plaza differ from other public spaces?

Wood: People will come to Harvey Milk Plaza for many reasons. But different than most other public spaces, Harvey Milk Plaza has a history as an important location in the Castro and the greater LGBTQ community. Historically, it has been an important meeting place and has functioned as the gateway to the neighborhood. But, with the new design, regardless of the reason people will visit, they will be actualizing the legacy of Harvey himself because the space is architecturally articulated and massaged to better allow for community, civitas, and the realization of human oneness. The architecture of the space is such that it supports the ethos of Harvey Milk. Our design allows the space to better function as a place for visitors to take up Harvey’s mantle and engage with each other: celebrate, rally, learn about LGBTQ history, people watch, talk, and grow hope… together, in the public realm with each other.

Skoda: We were intrigued with who Milk was; someone who literally helped foster a sense of community solidarity and activism with the LGBTQ community and other minority groups. As such, any space we design had to be inextricably related to that idea, of activism, of community, of acceptance and being who you are. Harvey Milk Plaza is therefore a space that encourages engagement and public discourse because that was clear to us as one of the most appropriate ways to honor his legacy. Therefore this space is different because that encouragement of voice, speaking and being seen is intrinsically linked to the memorial’s meaning and who Milk has and what he represented.

What really stood out to me about the design was its elevation. It seems the rise of the space is a contribution to the public discourse. Can you elaborate on the function of the elevation?

Skoda: The elevated area at the corner of Castro and Market allows a public elevation point at this prominent and historic corner to the LGBTQ community, allowing a speaker or speakers to utilize this highly visible point to communicate to crowds during rallies and special events. This corner has had this importance as a critical meeting point for the community, and by elevating the canopy, we can maximize that potential by making a highly visible, and symbolic lifting of that speaker and their voice above the community.

The current design creates an amphitheater in the center of the block. (Image: Perkins Eastman)

Wood: The elevation of the memorial is driven by two factors. Firstly, the site gradually gains elevation along Market from the energetic Castro Street to the more residential Collingwood Street; the elevation directly relates to the site’s context. Two amphitheater wings lift upwards from a central plaza. A west-facing wing hovers above the sidewalk as a modern day soapbox and an east-facing wing nestles itself into the earth, becoming a contemplative grove of trees. Secondly, the elevation we added to the plaza with these amphitheater wings enables the plaza to actively service Harvey’s legacies of community engagement and political activism which generate hope. The form of the memorial nods its head to classic architectural spaces for civic engagement. The memorial functions as an open air amphitheater in which visitors can engage, listen, and connect with each other. The winged memorial lifts visitors upwards as they interact with each other, thereby honoring Harvey by building community and engaging in a public space.

The community just finished giving input on your design. What did they say and how will their voices be incorporated into the final design?

Wood: Our design process with Harvey Milk Plaza is unique when compared to a vast majority of projects in the industry. From the beginning of the process, community feedback has been a central feature, informing and driving design decisions to ensure the values of the community were directly translated into (and subsequently supported by) the design. Community feedback was given every month by presenting our progress to the community to get their feedback. The community helped the design team develop “four community-based criteria for a successful design” at Community Meeting 1, which Perkins Eastman used to drive their design process and design decisions moving forward. At Community Meeting 2, we asked the community for detailed feedback on two of these criteria (inspiring memorial experience and successful public space). This specific feedback eventually allowed Perkins Eastman to develop four different design approaches for the plaza. Each design approach looked at a different form of public space and a different type of memorial. The design approaches ranged from a park to a building to a timeline. With feedback on these four approaches, we synthesized the favored elements from each into a single concept design, which we presented recently on May 15, 2018 at the final community meeting. As to be expected, the community has aesthetic and maintenance suggestions. We will be sure to address these as we move forward in the design process and iterate with city agencies. The design will undoubtedly evolve between now and construction.

Designers have a duty to support the public good, civitas, shared-ness, shared identity, and human connection.
— McCall Wood, Perkins Eastman

Discussing human expression and public space is refreshing at a time when obstructive or invasive security features (concrete tree potters, surveillance cameras) are taking over our parks. What did this project show you that, if given the chance, you would share with designers of public spaces around the country, or the world?

Skoda: Given the homeless crisis in San Francisco, security has been a huge issue for the community. Through the physical design we have sought to improve sight lines and visual connection thought the plaza. This does two things; first it allows people to feel safer in the plaza at all hours since it allows visual control and more “eyes on the street” and secondly it strengthens our design concept by allowing the community and visitors to interact and see one another. Having an open plaza that is human scaled can help make spaces attractive and achieve the community’s security concerns.

Wood: Humans have a strong desire to protect their ego. If our physical boundary, ‘proper’ label, or sense of self is questioned or changes, we think, “I can’t see myself! I must not exist!” We freak out. We fight to protect the ego (the ‘self’), but in reality, there is no ‘self,’ no delineation between ‘me’ and ‘you’ because we are all connected as a cohesive humanity composed of parts. ‘Self’ is simply an identifier that doesn’t define the reality and, frankly, ends up causing us problems fighting to maintain it.

Designers have a duty to support the public good, civitas, shared-ness, shared identity, and human connection. By creating places that support these ideas, designers can provide an antidote to counter balance and dissolve ego-boosting practices. Because, as Harvey Milk understood, it is only by being together (sans ego, sans boundaries, sans ‘proper’ identity) that we can have hope in this life, as Harvey Milk said, “hope that all will be all right.”

Dan Aymar-Blair is the executive director of the Article 20 Network.