Magazine article The Spectator

Leave Us Alone

Magazine article The Spectator

Leave Us Alone

Article excerpt

'Placemaking' is the big new idea that will transform communities. Architects, quangos and the government are all interested in this method of improving public space. Town and city planners are embracing it enthusiastically.

But, despite all the energy behind it, placemaking is backward-looking and assumes a great deal that is questionable. The process will cramp our style and sanitise our space.

Placemaking is 'the architecture of everyday life', explained John Sorrell, chairman of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, recently. The thinking reverses the principles developed by Le Corbusier, as exemplified by his proposed redevelopment of Paris in the 1920s, and states that buildings should not be icons surrounded by space.

Design, dramatic architecture and the wow factor are not important, it is suggested; it is the place between buildings that matters to most people. Therefore schools, streets, pavements, parks and front lawns need to be cleaned up.

The placemaking advocates have a small point. Iconic architecture has become a formula that has been replicated in too many major cities since Bilbao, with buildings often sited in an area with no thought as to why and how. Shiny and curvy buildings litter our streets, with little rhyme or reason. And the places where we live -- our local environment -- are run down and neglected. They could do with a bit of attention.

However, proponents go too far in the claims they make for their work. It is argued that 'their' way of making a city or a town will create citizenship and community, will make people feel empowered and will even assist in the forming of acquaintances.

As the professors of architecture Lynda H. Schneekloth and Robert G. Shibley write in Placemaking: The Art and Practice of Building Communities, 'It is not just about the relationships of people to their places; it also creates relationships among people in places.' The idea is that place creates stability and happy citizens; that our local environment -- if spic and span -- causes comfortable and steady relationships and builds social capital. But this argument is flawed. Nice places are pleasant, but they cannot build a new Jerusalem.

Comfortable coffee houses, washed windows and green, clean playgrounds, while agreeable, do not magically create strong communities.

It is people who create partnerships and friendships -- often around a common project, a shared outlook or simply just by taking a liking to each other. And we forge relationships with people at work or play not just because they live down the road or round the corner. There are times when we do not want to chat to our neighbours or smile at those we pass in the street, and it is not the job of architects to concentrate on our personal interactions.

We should be concerned about this goal to create relationships between people.

When designing cities, planners should not be making it a priority to get us together.

They are not matchmakers, and we can sort out whom we hang out with ourselves.

Advocates of placemaking argue that the experts on a place are the local community, and it is they who should be consulted on how their environment looks and feels.

There is, however, a thinly disguised longing for an idealised past, one of small towns and village life. …

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