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Old April 20th, 2007, 01:10 PM   #1
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Designing an Urban Public Space

In danger of losing a view of the pavement.
Edwin Heathcote
17 April 2007
Financial Times

There is an old philosophical question about a cup. Is it the vessel that is most important or the space contained within it? There is of course no answer.

You could also ask is architecture more important than the space it frames?

There is no answer, or is there? Any walk, slightly off the main tourist drag, through Venice, Barcelona, Rome or Lisbon will reveal an almost infinite variety of vibrant public space framed by very ordinary buildings. These are all cities studded with stunning architecture but they are made by the constant discovery and variety of urban space, from grand piazzas to left-over patches which have somehow been appropriated for public use through hung-out washing and plastic chairs, market stalls or festivals, or through the passeggiata, that mingling of citizen and city.

Architects from the Anglo-Saxon world reflect dreamily on these fondly-remembered places and render versions of them amidst the most bone-crushingly banal commercial developments, glass and steel behemoths dumbly reflecting those hyper-blue skies back at each other.

What these paradoxically poetic but mundane public spaces reveal is that architecture is not everything. Wonderful spaces can be framed by rather banal buildings.

From Walter Benjamin, who psychoanalysed Western civilisation through the arcades of Paris in the 1930s, to Jane Jacobs, who stated the importance of the US streetscapes which were flattened in the early 1960s, the 20th century saw a recognition of the invisible city, the streetscape backdrop to everyday life.

Cities have spent decades coming to terms with the importance of public space, not just the grand tourist squares but the grassy patches where office workers eat their sandwiches.

At the same time that Jacobs' hugely influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published (1961), encouraging Americans to look again at their stoops and burnt-out main streets, the city of Copenhagen was pedestrianising its entire downtown. A couple of decades later, Barcelona shrugged off the Franco years with an astonishing programme of revitalising public space ensuring each neighbourhood had a decent, attractive square or park which culminated in its status as one of the most urbane and buzzy cities on earth.

Then Paris catapulted Rogers and Piano's Pompidou Centre into a crumbling market quarter and ensured that the public space was as important as the building. A few years after that, London's Greater London Council remade Covent Garden into a tourist destination as did the Bostonians at Faneuil Hall.

These were projects which valued space as much as architecture. The buildings were important but they also had to act as backdrop to the theatre of the street. In some ways the boom in architecture in recent years has been detrimental to the art of making space. The rise of the self-conscious icon, the building shouting "look at me" has drawn attention towards the architecture whilst ignoring the context.

The bigger buildings get, the more space they are usually required to leave at ground level, either through planning gain (where the provision of public space or facilities is bartered for extra height) or through the intention to create a grand forecourt, a space to stand back and admire.

This is fine but it can severely interfere with the tight network of streets at its base. Lord Foster's Gherkin is a wonderful object but it sits isolated in an oddly shaped and disruptive piazza. There are, however, many worse examples. That is why, ironically, Barcelona or New York with their unforgiving street grids, often provide the best public space - their patterns are literally set in stone.

Although it has been slow, London has recently been making huge strides towards the development of decent public space. Mayor Ken Livingstone's ambitious programme for 100 Public Spaces (driven in part by Lord Rogers' ceaseless campaigning) is beginning to make a truly tangible difference. The transformation of Trafalgar Square from traffic island to public space has been dramatic. Meanwhile the freeing up of the Thames walkway - the creation of a truly new public amenity as London's river was always more industrial conduit than picturesque panorama - would have been a revelation if not for the crushingly bad architecture passed by.

But the intelligent emphasis on smaller schemes and on urban detail, from paving to street furniture is beginning to make itself felt from Florian Beigel's superb streetscape improvements in the unlikely and unbelievably harsh environment of the industrial waterside edge of Barking to the warm improvements and pedestrianisation of Queen Street in the City.

While such modest improvements are bringing liveability to the city's streets, a building boom which has transformed the skyline and streetscapes of the city continues to explode. The result is a plethora of new public spaces emerging within and around important new buildings.

But these are often pseudo-public only. Patrolled by private security guards, surveyed by CCTV, punctuated by anti-skateboard studs, this is the new face of the corporate city, mallification. It is, though, being realised that the spaces in front of buildings are more important than their lobbies. These are where architecture, corporate image and branding are perceived by the city beyond, first impressions made.

The plans for London's Olympics have meanwhile foregrounded public space and parks as a critical part of the regeneration programme, particularly the plans for Europe's biggest new urban park for a century and London - the city of mean streets and dug-up pavements, of fenced-off garden squares - finds itself at the centre of the rush to revitalise the public realm. In the interminable debate about the city's skyline, the danger remains of losing view of the pavement.
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