公園 ∕ 公案: On parks as living, beautiful, essential contradictions, the breaks in the street grid that make cities live.

Written July 2005. Designed January 2020. Accessible text follows…

公園 The Japanese word for park, kōen, spell out its basic contradiction: 公 for open or public, 園 whose outside box (the 囗 radical) designates enclosure.

A park is an open enclosure. Even if it is not gated or walled, like a Japanese garden or a post-1990 New York City Park (despite all of its recent crackdowns NYC has one of the most surprisingly inviting park systems in the world, the lungs for a people who would otherwise suffocate for lack of trees, grass, and water), a park always has limits, clear edges and boundaries. Yet anyone can enter it, its life is the porousness, the inefficacy of its gates.

Also, a park is a completely planned natural space. It is the older sibling to a garden, growing but along fixed lines. The most natural seeming parks often have hidden histories of delicate planning… Climb to the top of Buena Vista Park (above Haight Street in San Francisco) and the signs will explain this to you. Central Park, which feels like a vast insurgence of the natural into Manhattan, its forested bits pushing right to the sidewalks, its awesome boulders defying the smoothed topography of the street grid, was carefully tailored so that no space is obscured from all sides: no one can hide so, planners hoped, lovers will find a room instead of a nook in the woods.
And a park is the place in the city for solitude and for meetings, for clusters and crowds. Indeed, it ideally blurs these, provides a place for both, lets you feel like you are one of several dozen contemplating the sky for herself, or part of a league of skaters or swing riders, a herd of runners surging across an urban savanna.

Each function is a contradiction made physical, the answer to two or more opposite needs. Thus a park is like the questions posed for meditation among Zen Buddhists, forcing the mind to expand or blur its categories or to refuse to hold quite so tightly onto reality and its apparent distinctions. Such a question or parable (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” might be the most famous) is called a kōan. That word too designates a public matter: 公 for open or public, 案 file, plan or proposal, a “public record,” and thus a metaphor for realities that lie beyond the individual. 公案

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