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The Gates: Changing the User Experience of Central Park

by Elizabeth Rosenzweig
Principal Research Scientist, Eastman Kodak Company
Co-Director of Outreach, Usability Professionals' Association

Central Park in February is arguably the time when the park is at its emptiest, when it sees the fewest users. The sky is often gray, the temperatures can drop way below zero, even on a sunny day. This year, February was the month that Christo and Jean Claude choose to mount their latest environmental installation, the Gates in Central Park.

Christo and Jean-Claude have mounted previous works that completely change the user experience of their environments. These installations have included the Valley Curtain, a brightly colored installation that hung between two large mountains in Colorado, and the wrapping of a coast in Australia and a small island in Florida, where visitors could wade on the installation before they reached the water. Another interesting installation was the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin, that changed both the inside and outside experience of the building.

The Gates in Central Park takes it name from the original plan for the park that included gates in a stone wall that surround the park to close it off at night. The final plan left out the gates so the park could be open all the time. This installation is a nod to the openness of the park, a reflection to both the geometry of the city and the organic natures of the park itself.

The Gates' Circle

As a user of the park I noticed how the Gates changed my experience there. The entrance to the park was busy and reminded me more of a sunny spring day, than the subfreezing day it really was. The saffron rectangles clearly framed the pathways, inviting us to follow and linger as we went. Then the saffron curtains hung from these frames and changed as the weather changed.

When the wind picked up, the Gates resembled sails, floating on their way. The sun brought out the brightness of the saffron, but even the overcast sky brought out the bright hue of the curtains. The park was colorful and energetic. The Gates made paths stand out, and invited us to explore the park.

The Gates Resembling Sails in the Wind

When speaking with people who had visited The Gates I found many, many different reactions. It seemed the Gates stirred people to strongly either like or dislike them. Many, including my son, thought that the money should have been spent on taking care of the homeless people in the park instead of giving them eye-candy. Others thought this installation was a great testament to a democracy where people can express themselves freely and try to provide an enhanced experience that wonderful art often enables. Some people discovered that New York was really a friendly city; strangers could meet on a bus ride in and spend time together exploring Central Park.

The Gates' Pathways

One person, a regular visitor and runner in Central Park commented that the Gates provided him a clearer, more inviting view of the paths. They invited him to run down paths that he had previously missed. The Gates drew his attention to new areas of the park and enabled him to see it differently, so much that his experience was broadened as he explored new places within the park.

Going Down aTunnel

I loved the way that the Gates looked when they went down stairs. People descended into a space full of flowing saffron waves, making them look like they were floating. And the best was the way the Gates seemed to make people talk to one another. Imagine strangers chatting excitedly in a city that doesn’t usually encourage casual interaction. Here they were talking about their environment and listening to what others had to say, even if they didn’t agree. That was a new experience for me in the city.

The Gates Outlining the Paths

The Gates showed people where certain paths were, leading them around the park in a way that they never explored before. An interesting usability issue arose on a path that leads to a locked door at the Metropolitan Museum. The Gates went right up to the door and a large glass window that allowed people inside to get a great view of the Gates. People on the outside would follow the Gates right up to the locked door, and were often surprised to find they couldn’t get in. If the Gates had not been on that path, I don’t think they would have gone to the door. Clearly it was a usability issue, since the Gates were leading users to a door that didn’t open. On the other hand, it could have been artistic license, making a statement that the process, the path is more important than the destination.

The Gates worked well as an artistic installation in a public place. Christo and Jean-Clause succeeded in transforming Central Park into something different, something out of the ordinary by making the experience in the park new, interesting and thought provoking.

Photography by Elizabeth and Benjamin Rosenzweig.

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