White Space

On the urban design potential of snow.

We are conflicted about snow in cities. With the first storm of the season, the city becomes silent, bright and spatially renewed — the snow absorbs the sounds of traffic, reflects the low winter sun, and makes irrelevant the signs that warn “Keep off the grass” or “Stay on the path.” Yet we react to the new-found peacefulness by combating the fresh snow, by salting roads and sidewalks and revving up noisy plows and diesel blowers. In cities we constantly push around the snow — we move it out of our way, shovel and plow and mold it to ease our commutes and comply with regulations. It is contradictory: we react to the serene landscapes of new-fallen snow with loud and mechanized aggression.

No wonder that we have responded with so little creativity to the poetic presence of snow.

Only the kids know better! Few architects and urban planners have considered the aesthetic, spatial or ambient qualities of the accumulation, organization and distribution of snow — at least at any scale larger than that of a backyard, balcony or building entrance. Usually we heed only practical concerns, such as safety or energy efficiency. Probably snow is the only easily available natural material that is not regularly shaped by architects and planners. Perhaps this is because we tend to perceive winter as a temporary season. In our mind’s eye summer is the everlasting condition; we live in a “summer mindset.” The lawn is an urban material; the snowfield is not. So I would like to counter this with the proposal that we focus not just on summer’s green spaces but also on winter’s white spaces.

I took the photographs in the accompanying slideshow last winter, at various parking lots located throughout Buffalo, New York. As these images show, even everyday plowing practices — practices with no artistic or design ambitions — have the capacity to transform snowed-in parking lots into beautiful winter gardens. These images of unintentional snow landscapes, of landscapes blanketed with whiteness, resonate with my current design research project — an exploration of what I call “blank architecture,” or architecture that might initially seem blank, but that can be spatially and/or psychologically appropriated and transformed by users. The goal of this photo-documentation is to show how standard plowing techniques can become creative tools for generating winter landscapes and in this way spark a new public appreciation for snow-blanketed urban spaces. We might see these utterly banal parking lots as project prototypes. The white parks that I envision could be easily constructed: plowing master plans would carefully locate the snow mounds, and the resulting designs would artistically exploit the spatial conditions defined by these usually overlooked piles of snow.

In winter, an artfully shaped snow landscape could become a “whitesward” — underscoring the now obscured potential for plowing to positively transform public space. Such a white landscape could be considered a “snow observation ground” to encourage people to appreciate the snow and its accumulation, and to dispel the negative impressions and experiences that our combative approach has produced. In a list he compiled for Places many years ago, of subjects he thought worthy of exploring in the journal’s pages — see “In no order whatsoever” — Kevin Lynch suggested: “How to pile up snow in interesting ways, or to decorate it or color it, with an appendix on ice palaces.” As the accompanying images suggest, these white fields are already interesting spaces, capable of exciting the imagination and of encouraging us to find new “interesting ways” to pile up snow.

Sergio Lopez-Piñeiro, “White Space,” Places Journal, November 2009. Accessed 03 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/091122

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Past Discussions View
  • Kenneth

    12.17.2009 at 13:54

    This is terrible photography. No technical merit or craft, no composition or artistry, nothing about these photographs is interesting in any way. It does not show how standard plowing techniques can become creative tools. Design Observer, please remember that every time something of such limited interest and poor execution gets posted here it dilutes the praise you are able to give to deserving works.

    Was this post really better than no post?

  • faslanyc

    12.17.2009 at 15:17

    I disagree. I think some of the photos are wonderful. But sure, there was no need for 18- a lot of editing (choosing, say, 3-5) could have been done.

    But they communicate the idea. slide 17 starts to show the scale of mounds that is possible and relationships between them. it's a beautiful photo.

    Also, the idea is good and very relevant to specific regions. I could easily see a near corner of the parking lot of target being turned in to mounds and snow-slides and such while parents shop (like McDonald's play pens but awesome, cheap, and ephemeral). Target would probably make a lot of money, all from clearing their parking lot. clearing that much snow is not something individual households can do and so it's something unique big parking (or other) areas can contribute.

    The author is an architect- i wonder why he doesn't raise the point with buildings? Why couldn't roofs and facades be designed to be light and thin (for milder months) but with reinforcement and appendages that trap snow against the walls and roof in the winter months for added insulation? Big snow drifts as a good thing?

    The general theme is to see constraints as opportunity (with water, sun, snow, dirt, waste). I dig it.

  • Terri

    12.18.2009 at 13:17

    Hey Sergio, did you hear about the Buffalo Powder Keg Festival that is starting this year? You have to check it out on Buffalo Rising or Facebook. You could totally tie this into your research.

    As a buffalo native I know what your talking about and think it's a good idea. There are two problems to explore and find solutions to. How do you fund the landscaping of the snow, the city certainly doesn't have the $ (by the way a lot of those pics look like the southtowns McKinley mall and surrounding plazas we have no stores with giant parking lots like that in the city), and ensuring safety that while these landscapes/sculptures are constructed and eventually melting and falling apart or being sleded on that people are safe.

    Yes it would be great to have a sledding hill in the target parking lot but a kid gets hit by a car or hits a car and then they have a big lawsuit on their hands that costs a lot more than the extra clothes and cd's they sold.

    I'm sure these would be solvable just finding the right answers will help build your case and bring it from research to real projects that make a difference.

  • Terri

    12.18.2009 at 13:21

    and by the way Kenneth, this guy is an asst. architecture prof. not a professional photographer. The photos are to visually supplement his concept of urban planning, not to become works of art.

  • Brandon

    12.18.2009 at 16:27

    Kenneth is a hater. The photos are beautiful...especially the panoramic shots. It is also one of the more interesting posts on this blog.

  • Mark

    12.19.2009 at 06:51

    I completely disagree with Kenneth. Few of photos are really eye catching and beautiful...

  • Paquete

    12.20.2009 at 09:39

    Nice essay, Mr. Pineiro. I particularly like the focus on parking lots, which tend to be dreary and nihilistic monuments to American commerce. That most of your photos were taken at night is telling, however. Do these spaces still function/maintain their beauty w/ people in them--or when the light of day shows that the snow is no longer white and unspoiled?

  • J Vernal

    12.20.2009 at 20:56

    As a transplant to Western New York I find this conversation/post incredibly fascinating and befitting. In moving from a snow free climate to one where the presence of a great lake means that storm totals are measured in feet not inches it has become obvious that the typical "summer" routines and habits needs to be reevaluated— especially for these places where it is winter for at least half the year.

  • Kevin

    12.21.2009 at 11:29

    From Amherst NY myself, it's interesting to see how other cities deal with large amounts of snow. Living in chicago for years, I always found it interesting how a much larger city, with a comparable infrastructure, would be brought to it's knees by it's inability to deal with relatively small amounts of snow (2-4 in).

    A few years a go, some friends and I were driving through some of the plazas on Niagra Falls Blvd, and saw a driver ramming his car at a snowpile much like these, over and over. When he had succeded in getting his beater honda properly placed at a 45 degree angle, we asked him what he was doing. He said that he did this every year, finding cars for a few hundred dollars and stranding them at odd angles in snowbanks, for ammusement. Public art via drunken college students?

  • Anonymous

    01.03.2010 at 07:20

    Nice essay, Mr. Pineiro.The photos are beautiful...especially the panoramic shots. But COlour may be better?

  • Aaron K

    01.15.2010 at 21:20

    I like your photos, very creative