Friday, March 7, 2008
Lately I’ve been troubled by squares. In particular with a square near my house. Gillett Square was built in the first phase of the mayor’s 100 Public Spaces for London. Formerly it was just Gillett Street, a side road leading to a car park off the Kingsland Road in Hackney. Now it is a piazza.
Gillett Square has been equipped with all the accoutrements of the modern urban public space: granite paving slabs, stylish stainless steel street lamps, contemporary looking benches. It looks the part. Trouble is there’s never anyone in it. This is odd because as anyone who’s ever lived there will testify, there are very few quiet bits of Dalston. It’s one of the liveliest places in London. Music pores from the mobile phone shops, lay preachers bellow in your ear through loud hailers at Ridley Road market, nutters congregate around the entrance to Dalston Kingsland station.
Gillett Square though is consistently eerily empty. No one sits on its contemporary benches and the stylish street lamps march forlornly over the granite setts like pylons in some blasted landscape. Along one edge of it are some small kiosks offering the ubiquitous services Dalston has to offer: mobiles unlocked, Jerk chicken, nail painting. There’s a bit of action around these but these kiosks predate the square and they’re not nearly as busy as their counterparts on Kingsland Road.
Gillett Square is based on a misconception. It assumes a static and unmoving conception of how our cities are inhabited and what constitutes public space. Urban designers and architects are obsessed with public space. It is assumed to be a positive, vital element within our cities, a place where we come together to perform spontaneous acts of public communion. What’s more it represents the apogee of the civic claims of the city. This assumes that the physical proximity encouraged by urban density translates into a communal or spiritual proximity: a literal and metaphorical shared space.
Conversely, suburbia is accused of constructing social atomisation through its lack of physical density. Whether travelling by car, shopping in vast retail parks or living in detached houses surrounded by miniature versions of medieval moats and picturesque ha has, suburbia, it is assumed, accentuates social distance. The civic qualities of social participation assumed to be encouraged by physical proximity therefore privileges the city as the model for how to organise settlement. If the by-passes, cul-de-sacs and malls of suburbia stand as short hand for its inability to foster civic qualities, the piazza, squares and pocket parks of the city are seen as the opposite. The piazza represents the aspiration of the city as positive social condenser.
Not only does the above ignore many of the effects of digital culture, our ability to some extent to be in a number of different places at the same time and find common cause regardless of geography, it also ignores the realities of contemporary urban life. Wander away from the emptiness of Gillett Square for example and you will find a wealth of public spaces. They just aren’t where we, as architects, are looking for them. The real public spaces of Dalston are the nail bars and all night hairdressers. These places act way beyond their immediate function and form spaces of constant social buzz and interaction, At midnight on a Friday they’re packed. People hang out, chat, listen to music. Meanwhile Gillett Square stands empty, waiving its classical credentials as an increasingly hollow gesture. The problem here is not so much the ubiquitous turd in the plaza as the plaza itself.
Communities are constructed not through architecture but through social connections.
Architecture arises as an expression of this as much as it produces it. The imposition of classical urban form does not generate society spontaneously like a boiler generates hot water. Not only that but it ignores the way that communities are formed and the variety of places where that form is given public expression. You might go further and say that our concept of how to plan cities needs to shift. That we cannot rely on the platitudes of received urban form to give articulation to shared spaces and common ground. Perhaps we should question the idea that community is formed only through physical proximity or that this proximity finds its ideal manifestation in the form of the piazza. An expanded understanding of what constitutes public or shared space might help too.
I can hear the distant rumbling of Aldo Rossi turning in his grave of course, and there are dangers in architects trying to design for spontaneity or randomness. Certainly this is not really a formal question, which is what architects prefer after all. It’s more about being attuned to the subtle demographics that modify architectural space. The things that we do rather than patrician notions of what we should be doing.
Perhaps the city should stop being held up as the ideal way to live too. After all there is an inverse to all this longing for proximity and sociability in architecture. That is the desire to escape the city, to be alone. I’m hoping that’s the subject of the next post.
Posted by Charles Holland at Friday, March 07, 2008