Friday, March 7, 2008

A Bas Piazzas!

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.


owen hatherley said...

The piazza syndrome is very 'Bilbao effect', no? The lets-get-more-European ethos, which initially seems a wonderful idea until you realise that in the cities they tend to hold up as a model the unpicturesque are shunted to the outskirts. But the current alternative, the pseudo-public space of Caffe Neros, malls and their appendages, is even worse, and is surely what the Rogersite square-making sees itself as reacting against. Mind you, piazzas, squares and precincts* are very often occupied and well used, though usually for the purposes of 'loitering', by 'youths'...

* which also begs the question - if we're fine with suburban atomisation and the need to be alone (and in the latter case I don't see why not) then what's wrong with the desolate square? Personally I love a good windswept plaza.

Charles Holland said...

well yeah, and a bleak suburban underpass come to that. i suppose my point was no one does loiter in gillet sq. if they did then fair enough. it lacks even the bleak poetry of the windswept plaza (although i suggest that's a fairly recherche pleasure). its just crap. suburbia has many places to be together, many of them informal and unplanned and ideal for youths and the loittering thereof. but this is not an argument for suburbia, more one against slightly platitudinous planning. a bit confused though i'll grant ya.

Emma Jones said...

I'm interested that you posted this critique of Gillett Square on the same date when a very successful public art project Newspaper House was taking place here? ( Not wanting to whitewash over all of your observations, it seems that this 'vacuum' you are so preoccupied with presents an opening for creative thoughts to flow into. I work with Hackney Cooperative Developments on a project to stimulate the use of this space and we have a continuous flow of proposals from artists and a variety of other locals re events they want to make happen here - the real problem with public realm projects, I feel, is the lack of funding to realise interesting, non-commercial interventions (and mainly because of Health & Safety regulations incur unsustainable costs) I know this rather more orchestrated stuff is not necessarily what interests you but I don't think you can ignore these major projects which have come directly from local people as a result of this space existing.

Charles Holland said...

Emma, thank you for your comments. I was unaware of the coincident art project. I understand what you are saying and think it valuable from that point of view that there are places for events to happen. I suppose my point might seem a bit of an arcane one but i wanted to challenge the idea of what constituted 'public space', especially in a place like Dalston which has a very individual culture which doesn't perhaps share the cultural legacy of European piazza's. Nothing wrong with piazzas but there just seems a very rigid fixation on them and I wanted to suggest that cultures produce their own spaces as well as having them thrust upon them. sometimes the provision of piazza's seems like the administration of so much cod liver oil! and, lastly, formally it looks so much like everywhere else with the paving and the lamps and the banners and you look around Dalston and its totally different and I wondered whether there was some more carefully tuned, subtler way to integrate with that. Of course, i may well be wrong and Owen in the comments above has a very different take on it.......