Gray scapes: The interstitial spaces in a dense city

Urban sprawl has led to the development of infrastructure and buildings very quickly. But along with it, it has also brought in the interstitial spaces. These in-between spaces in the form of gaps and voids are the grey spaces. They lack a designated program and value. They remain vacant and non-existent in the city’s fabric.  Further, with a lack of planning and policies, these are mistreated and become unusable. With urbanization increasing madly, it is becoming vital to be sensitive about the usage of grey spaces which can aid in adding significance to the city.

“The time may soon come when planners, designers, developers, and others will recognize and act on the simple notion that the spaces between buildings are as important to the life of urban man as the buildings themselves.” – Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander in Imaging the City from Community and Privacy

The playgrounds by Aldo Van Eyck are one of the best examples of utilizing the grey spaces and converting them to a meaningful place. Back in 1950, Aldo Van went on designing nearly 300 playgrounds all over Amsterdam on such interstitial spaces. The playgrounds were not based on the scale of the locality or the neighborhood, but on the leftover spaces like parking lots, derelict sites which were being used as garbage dumps, dead-end streets.

Image 1: Dijkstraat playground developed in the grey space formed in between 2 buildings

The playground at Dijkstraat was constructed in 1954 being 25m long and 10m wide. Flanked by two, four and five-storied buildings, it only opened up from one narrow street end.

Image 2 Plan showing the playground and the narrow street acting as the connecting link


The in-between space was charged by installing multiple playful pieces of equipment like a sandpit, somersault frames, large climbing arches, etc. The children of the neighborhood found this pocket extremely engaging and a dead dumped space got a life.

It is not possible to avoid grey spaces. As Michael Greenberg, Frank Popper, and Bernadette West rightly suggested in their article on temporarily obsolete abandoned derelict sites, “every city has them; scattered, random unused parcels of land of varying size and shape.” The only way to use them is by supplementing contextual programs and knitting these pockets to the city’s fabric.

Image 3: Revival of the underpass in Ammerud by charging it through multiple activities

Revival of leftover spaces can bring in the government, architects, and the nearby users as a team together. Thereby, treatment to such spaces also becomes community engaging. The dark underpass in Ammerud, Norway had become a restricted zone. The localities avoided using it since it lacked safe activities. The intervention by the municipality, students of Oslo School of Architecture, and the localities revamped this dingy patch of land into a lovable spot of the city. They introduced instruments for exercises and children’s activity which instilled life in it.

Image 4:  Various activities which have charged up the underpass

The urban voids are spaces full of possibilities as they are devoid of any program or function. By understanding the site context, it gives the designer and the planners cue to encourage supporting activities. Since these programs need to be laid over the existing context, it becomes very significant to make a design that is coherent and overlaps with the current site scenarios.

Kolkata Architecture Foundation’s upcoming project Newtown Axis Bridge flyover proposes activities keeping the context and the present condition well into account. The site is flanked by the shopping malls on both the side which brings in a heavy footfall to the area. Currently, the space below the flyover is primarily being used by the 2 wheeler bike drivers to park and relax in between their delivery duties.

Image 5 Existing site condition of the grey space under the Newtown Flyover Axis Bridge

The design by the foundation encourages a number of spaces for all age groups. Besides providing a parking lot to the existing drivers, the design houses spaces for yoga, open mic, karaoke nights, sitting and working, playing board games, art and craft exhibitions, workshops, sculpture fests, etc. This shall be adding dynamic energy and charge to otherwise leftover and chargeless space.

Image 6 Visualisation of the grey space beneath the Newtown Axis Flyover

Urbanisation has led to a significant decrease in public spaces. The open spaces have been replaced by infrastructure and urban voids. It is becoming the need of the hour to rethink and revisualise these residual spaces. Yes, without this as well, the infrastructural projects work efficiently. But such intervention help in revamping the urban voids into shared spaces. It gives the public realm an expression where people can come meet and celebrate.

What do you think about these interstitial spaces and their treatment? Do share your thoughts.

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