The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and of ourselves.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Supermall vs local high street

It is found out by the LDC (Local Data Company) that Britain has the worst rate of shop closures this year, with one in four shops closing down. Three times more shops are now closing across the country´s town centres than did last year, with 19 000 shops shutting so far in 2009. Most of these were independent stores. While shopkeepers admit that the recession has not helped, the overwhelming feeling is that the town´s problems cannot be blamed on the financial crisis only. The impact of the new-out-of-town shopping complex is the principal gripe.

A stroll down the local high street currently might be a devastating view - clusters of empty shop facades outnumber the surviving businesses, an array of charity shops and pound stores that has filled some of the vacated units. Faint lettering leave the reminder of shops moved out. However there are attempts to try to counter the high street´s appearance. To lessen the visual impact of rows of vacant stores, some of the local councils have installed artworks in some windows and painted the shop fronts bright colours. It seems a temporary solution though.

A city, a local high street should be a living organism that contains more than one function. I admire the enthusiasm of local council workers in Margate who have come up with the idea "... to prepare the high street for an age in which it is not solely a shopping centre, but one in which former stores might be used as university classrooms, community centres or art installations..." The end of the retail-dominated high street looms in the horizon, finally...

Friday, 14 August 2009

Inside/out - De Grote Hof

Rapp´s design for De Grote Hof is one of the housing ensemble examples that turns the traditional closed urban block inside-out. Five virtually square courtyards measuring 230x250m accommodate 246 homes. All of these homes face inwards, while the individual gardens are situated on the outside. The complex as a whole is framed by canal.

De Grote Hof has 5 courtyards. Four of them are square and roughly the same size, while the fifth is rectangular and much larger. The smaller courtyards have a completely different character then the rectangular one - something between a village green and an urban space. The difference in atmosphere derives not only from the difference in scale, but also from the transitional zone between the individual homes and the courtyard´s communal space. In the four small courtyards, this zone is marked out in the paving and partitioned off for each home with small fences. Residents can sit
in front of their homes and make contact with neighbours. The informal architecture appears to complement the casual contact between the residents. The rectangular courtyard makes a more formal statement.

De Grote Hof in Ypenburg, Architectenbureau Rapp+Rapp

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Public - Private Paradox in Housing

The paradox of the new open space in housing ensembles is its ambiguity: it attempts to be both public and private. For what and for whom are these little squares intended? Who actually uses them and in what ways? Newcomers who stroll around these layouts feel slightly confused: Is this a public park? A private garden for the residents of the villas? Or is it other way around, and are passers-by invited to look at the residents on their terraces? Sometimes such paradoxical experiences are what makes these spaces so fascinating. The old meanings of private life and public domain shift and lose their unequivocalness. The new open space brings urban life into traditional housing block through visual links with the city and by permitting entry to other users.

At times private and public seem to seamlessly flow into one another. Crucial elements in the organization and experience of the public and private domains are the boundaries and transitions: entrances to the dwellings, back sides of the buildings, gardens and the place for cars. The logic of the perimeter block however gets reversed: the inner side becomes its formal side and front side to the entrances.

An important
consequence in the reversal is that the "backs of the houses" are on the outer side and therefore eventually in a public area. The reversal of the block principle also means that the car cannot be parked right by the door and this in some opinions creates a feeling of belonging to the community. However the ambiguous status of the new open space is not a collective one: most of these kind of spaces created in the Netherlands for example are public property. These new ensembles can be seen as experiments. They are hybrids, the sense of public-private spaces is being sought anew.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

City of Domains

Traditional typology of urban design creates a strict division between private and public space - between the courtyard with private gardens and the street. The new open space according to DASH (Delft Architectural Studies on Housing) should open up the residential block. But the intervention is not aimed at creating room for a collective domain, but accommodating a new relationship between the public and private.

Parochial space according to American sociologist Lofland is a space that is indeed accessible to the public but clearly forms the territory of a particular group: those who walk in as strangers often feel themselves to be unwelcome guests. Public domain presumes on atmosphere of exchange and confrontation. The question then becomes: how open are these dominated domains, what relation do they have with other domains and to what extent can they be designed? Is the involvement of residents one of the main conditions for experiencing a space as public?

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Physical mementoes?

Here is a story of an artist Jasper Joffe...

"... last Christmas my girlfriend broke up with me. It was one of those times in life when you wake up 5am, wondering what are you going to do next; above anything else, you feel out of control... at almost exactly at the same time, I left the gallery where I´d been working as an artist for many years. It was going to be my 34th birthday two weeks later too, I suddenly realised that my entire personal and professional life was completely up in the air; it felt like I´ve reached an emotional Ground Zero...
I decided to gather together every single possession I owned - without exception - and place these all together in order to see how everything stood. I then planned to put on an exhibition of everything I had, inviting guests to come in, root around my belongings and buy whatever they wanted. Over the course of a few days, I enlisted a few friends who helped me work through my stuff - my clothes, my old toys, letters from friends at primary school and ex-girlfriends... Once we´d cleaned the place out, my flat was totally empty: no television, no kettle, no soap. The only things I had kept hold of were the clothes I am wearing now - a pair of trousers, a shirt, a jumper, some pants and a pair of flip flops - plus my wallet, house keys and passport. It was quite terrifying moment realising that this was all I had left to my name...
Finally I am free and unencumbered by my past. Now that the sale has just come to an end and I have nothing left, I´m going to head off travelling, somewhere I don´t need to think about things. From there, I will start to build my future, piece by piece. Any memories that I have, I hold in my head. I don´t need physical mementoes to remind me of me..."

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Public is Claiming Space - Play

Lately I was intrigued by Quentin Stevens article on "Why Berlin´s Holocaust Memorial is such a popular playground?". In the article he highlights the people´s need for proactive role in exploring landscapes and appropriating spaces to suit their varied desires. He argues that individuals´ needs and interests for remembrance (or self presentation?) are more varied and less understood and therefore harder to support or control through design.

Four basic forms that play takes - competition, simulation, chance and vertigo - emphasise different ways in which play provides escape from the seriousness, conventions and limits of everyday behaviour. The public realm presents spontaneous and dynamic configurations of place, events and people. Through various kinds of play, people develop themselves as individuals, and they test the limits of what public space can offer rather than merely receiving spaces as designers intend.

Peter Eisenman´s Memorial to the Murdered Jews, opened 2005 in Berlin, is 2 hectare field of 2711 concrete pillars. There has been a lot talk about the politics of its creation, but less talk about how visitors have appropriated the setting for many unanticipated activities. The Memorial lacks clear symbolism and obvious function and therefore invites free interpretation.

The MMJE´s scale and omni-directionality reduces formality: unlike many memorials, there is no focal axis or "front". Its pillars provide a multiplicity of audience seating and stages where people can meet their needs to see and be seen. Security staff only patrol the perimeter and act only to prevent dangerous uses, not uses which are merely undesirable. Eisenman intended this memorial to induce clautrophobia, disorientation, isolation, confinemet and unsteadiness. Without moral guidance such direct sensory arousal often instead stimulates play.

It is interesting to find out that not having been designed to suit particular functions or bodily gestures, this memorial´s abstract simplicity maximises usefulness. The expansive, complex field of pillars enables wide range of secondary, unplanned, yet-to-be-discovered uses. The MMJE illustrates ways public spaces can promote freedom and variety of public action beyond any definitions of function or meaning.

Design cannot necessarily enable or prevent play. Encouragement to free, playful behaviour can never be coersive. It is probably partly because playfulness was not among Eisenman´s intentions that people´s behaviour around this memorial is so creative and diverse. Designer´s role is to establish possibilities for meaning and use.

source:Quentin Stevens article on MMJE, 2009

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Before Public is Claiming Space - Self Presentation

Over the course of centuries we have seen a progressively stronger and subtler management of impulses and emotions within and between people. Spontaneous outbursts and behaviours such as spitting, drooling, vomiting, ranting and raging; pissing, shitting, sweating, screeching etc, have become increasingly embarrassing. This process started in courtly circles, followed by upper class and bourgeois, until finally by everyone else. Norbert Elias outlines that this process brought along an on-going privatisation of living quarters, a reduction of accessibility, not only physical but also reduction of visibility, audibility. From this fairly recent trend of privatisation people too quickly conclude that privacy is timeless and ubiquitous human need.

However people do not need seclusion as much as they need adequate self presentation. People are keen to present themselves at all times as competent, morally adequate. They expect others to accept them as they are, observe and respect their "space". In order to present oneself, they need to work on their self-presentation, away from prying eyes... before getting into costume and applying make-up for the next scene. As long as people can take care of their self-presentation without being seen, as long as nobody violates their "space", the public space can accommodate anything.

Successful public space is more than an area accessible to all: it is a space that includes, excludes, conceals and displays, raises and lowers at the same time. Some argue that this kind of environment cannot be designed, one can merely facilitate it - inviting to careful social explorations.

"To create such settings which are central, public and open is to recognise and invite diverse, new and unpredictable behavioural possibilities rather than serving narrow, predetermined instrumental activities. These gathering points imply and stimulate social interaction and ´transfunctional´ usage, transcending the orderly routines of everyday life. " (Henri Lefebvre in Writing on Cities, 1996)