Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Still Got Love For the Streets

These various fragments are connected in my mind by recent conversations regarding the legacy of The Smithson’s ‘streets in the sky’ and how these might intersect with current ideas of public space. In particular, the Smithson’s notion of streets in the sky was based on their close reading of street life in London’s east end and therefore on an idea of public space that is used, useful but non-prescriptive. Their idea of the content of public space therefore seemed to acknowledge the various lives that might be lived within it. Crucially therefore it avoided the formalist gesture of the piazza in favour of a more subtle elaboration of the street. So….

Down and out in Paris…

At least since the1850’s when Baron Houssmann designed the wide boulevards of central Paris at least partly in order to make it easier for troops to quell insurrection, the public space of the street has also been a space of social control. Or, possibly, the lack of definition of the street has made social control of it an issue. Some seventy years after Haussmann, Le Corbusier proposed his Ville Radieuse, in many way a radical upping of Hausmann’s anti. The Ville Radieuse proposed the wholesale demolition of the centre of Paris, to be replaced by towers standing majestically in ordered parkland splendour. The justifications for this radical measure where similar to Haussmann’s stated aims: increased sanitation, clean air, light, space and the privileging of visual order. Le Corbusier justified his audacious proposal by suggesting, at least implicitly, that the radical reconfiguration of the traditional city would result in a more stable social order. Towards A New Architecture ends with the reactionary warning: “Architecture or revolution”. In some ways it couldn’t be clearer. In the formal chaos of the city are fermented the seeds of social insurrection. Architecture can design them away.

Owen Hatherley has alerted me to the closing, in 1997, of the escalator access to the roof of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The democratic pretensions of the Pompidou lie both in the rhetoric of flexibility implied and in some cases made possible by its technology and, more tangibly, in the moving streets in the sky offered by the escalators that ride up its side. Even streets in the sky need policing. Too much freedom is clearly a bad thing.

…and London

“…if we would court their presence, we have only to take care that they find multitudes living in lanes and alleys in which there is no drainage, or in which the drainage is inefficient, where open cesspools and accumulated heaps of a filth unnamable abound.’

In this quote from an 1847 letter to the Times regarding the ‘rookerie’ slums of London, it's not clear whether its people or diseases that are being referred to.

The late, great Robin Evans wrote that the demolition and redevelopment of London’s rookeries, ostensibly motivated by the desire to improve sanitary and hygiene conditions was also motivated by a fear of what the rookeries bred. It was felt that their congested spaces and visual inaccessibility made them the natural home of immoral acts. Their back alleys and complex warren like configuration made them hard to police, but, more than that, was seen to actively encourage a similar covertness of mind and behaviour.

Regent Street is one of the few pieces of formal urban planning in London. This fact is often seen as being to the detriment of London and its inability to think strategically and ambitiously about urban space. The medieval street pattern is somehow evidence of a lack of clarity and vision. When John Nash designed Regent Street he employed the classical colonnade to front his crescents and villas. The colonnade is a device ideal for loitering. It offers shelter and a space to wander and stop to talk. Knowing this, but fearful of the vagabonds and vagrants who would hang around the front doors of the residents of Portland Place, Nash made a cunning modification. He removed the section of street immediately under the colonnade and replaced it with fenced off steps to the basements of the houses. The colonnade thus became a symbol divorced from its function of offering shelter. Not only did Nash provide visual order to the chaos of central London, but he designed out the possibility of undesirables hanging around in them. Nash was the polar opposite of his contemporary John Soane. Contrast the efficient order and social engineering of Nash's terraces with the dark perversity and bewildering labyrinthine passages of Soane's own house in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Up, down, turn around, please don't let me hit the ground.

Some 130 years later another large area of London was cleared and re-planned: the South Bank. Here though the much criticised lack of legibility, their lack of traditional urban clarity, lends the spaces a looseness of interpretation. They may not move but, like the original intention for the Pompdiou, the terraces and aerial walkways of the South Bank encourage a a kind of exhilarating freedom of movement. Leading up, down, all around, the buildings become a kind of landscape to be climbed on and over as well as through. Adrian Forty has noted the inherently democratic nature of the plan of the Royal Festival Hall. He suggests persuasively that the enormous foyer space that occupies almost the entire ground floor is a truly public space because no reason or justification is required to be there. The design of this space means that far from being simply a feeder space for the main event, the auditorium or the ticket qeue (which is after all what all public buildings have) it is the main event itself. It is one of the most generous and open and uncontrolled spaces in the city. It is an extension of those other streets in the sky of the Southbank, a square in the sky maybe, but also, with its carpeted walkways and stairs, more like a living room in the sky.

Standing in the Way of Control

The visual and spatial order of the idealised city is also a tool in the production of a corresponding social order. I have written before about Gillet Square in Hackney and its received and idealised notions of public space. These spaces anticipate similarly idealised notions of behaviour. As an architect involved in designing new housing I am told that public space should be surveyed and bounded. Cabe’s Building for Life standards and the police’s Secured by Design guides both attempt to design out spaces which could be used for loitering or anti-social behaviour. This is common sense and eminently reasonable. Like all common sense and eminently reasonable things it leaves little room for the unreasonable and the illicit. As a teenager going to school in suburban Essex, spaces for loitering and anti-social behaviour were exactly the spaces I sought out. These were the spaces of illicit activity, places which only teenagers and other people not engaged in ‘proper’ activities can hang out. Improper, unsupervised, visually un-surveyed spaces.

The painter George Shaw has documented these kind of in-between and left over spaces – allotments, garage lock-ups, the bits of scrubland left over when new estates are built – the kinds of places no one designs. In its loose fit, its lack of identity and its formlessness these spaces allow certain things, things designed out of the rest of our environment, to happen. They serve a kind of purpose and are home to something. The conventions of urban design, seemingly benign, are also driven by a desire to purge, to clean up. The social neuroticism of the John Pawson interior occurs on an urban level too. The Smithson’s streets in the sky at least seem to contain things. French film stars mainly but also prams, people, milk floats, football games, the detritus of life. The urge to clear away, to sweep unmentionables out is a profoundly strong one in architecture.

It’s hard to make a case for bad design, but equally hard to escape the notion that too much ‘good design’ might be bad for the soul. Architects and urbanists, tragically, are never allowed to get down with their bad selves. They always feel the compelling need to improve, to sort out problems, to make the world better. Sometimes though, its better when its badly designed. When its a bit wrong.


Robert Doyle said...

The Regent Street Quadrant was constructed by Nash with a Colonnade.

It was demolished in 1848 as a notorious haunt of prostitutes.

"The quadrant colonnades were ... from every point of view except architectual magnificence, a disaster. They were gloomy and dirty, the shops only attracted inferior trades; and as arcades in great cities always do, they became promenades for prostitutes." (Summerson, 1980 p135)

owen hatherley said...

I wonder, being a dilettante, how easy it is to 'make' these spaces without it seeming horribly token and contrived. I like the way that little Georgian or Medieval enclaves were included in the (alas long since ruined) Pepys estate and the Barbican - but the word reservation can spring to mind. But yeah, I was getting at in the streets-in-sky post that the way that those two places and those like them had so many places to loiter and get lost in is both what makes them places, unlike yer standard few point blocks and a patch of land, or indeed the empty civic amenity with the accompanying achingly 'European' idea of public space.

This came up once in conversation with Savage Messiah - who has loads of interesting stuff to say on this - that the walkways and such are what makes these places everything the rookeries were in the popular imagination previously. Of course it's also exactly the thing that folk get so upset about about these structures, all those places where one can escape the police, avoid detection...and knife each other over disrespect or whatever, I suppose.

Murphy said...

I think architects have been struggling over this question for at least twenty years now. It is obvious that a certain irregularity and inefficiency can be what makes a space a Space, but I don't think anybody has really come up with a satisfactory way it can be generated from within the architect's position (a subservient actor within the powerful network). You hear a lot of talk about planning for the unplanned, and there's currently a hope that digital/parametric design can somehow resist the generic city, but I'm not optimistic.
It's disheartening to know that if you do your job too well, the stakeholders can lose out...

Charles Holland said...

well i guess someone like Aldo Rossi would maintain that architecture should keep an enigmatic silence on issues of space/use/occupation and allow whatever happens to happen. in his case that mostly means standing moodily in empty piazzas. certainly the idea of space changing through its occupation is an under-developed one in architecture, mainly cos architects like to control and define space, not understand its role in changing over time.

this is preferable to some (oxymoronic) presciption for spontaneous acts of behaviour i feel though. both Koolhaas and Tschumi talked about these issues and used ideas of spatial redundancy to do so. its curious that someone like le corbusier did exactly the opposite in his houses from his urbanism. the houses are surreal and playful and anti-functional elements are included like the pointless duplication of stairs and ramp in the villa savoire. urbanisatically though its always been different where the will to represent a stable social order prevails.

i have the least faith in the digital axis though, mainly because it assumes a total control of spatial order by the architect which is never (quite rightly) the case meaning that something like FOA architects flowing, deterritorialised space ends up with barriers and doors and toilet signs and anti theft devices and, indeed rooms, added at the end. so that work seems happiest in the realm of the digital where formal freedom is easier to assume.

robert, that is interesting about the demolition. did he fence off the collonades of portland place as a consequence?

owen hatherley said...

curious that someone like le corbusier did exactly the opposite in his houses from his urbanism

Except for the Unites, maybe? There's a whole lot of far from straightforwardly functional things going on there, the sculpted roof gardens and what have you. A balance between his earlier obsessive-compulsive disorder and the houses' playfulness seems to be at work (although I know very little abt how this works in say, Chandigarh)

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