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Opinion - Public Spaces

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Any country’s public life owes a debt to its history – and so should its public spaces, writes Patrick Lynch.

As well as banishing theatre, festivals and religious and secular displays of public life, Oliver Cromwell also banned Christmas. In effect, the Roundheads banned public space. Consequentially, according to Cambridge historian Peter Burke, Britain lacks any post- Reformation public spaces – unless you count Horse Guards Parade, which is a military parade ground. Trafalgar Square had a statue placed in it to limit its use as a centre for public protest, and we still use it awkwardly today – a powerful reminder of the intense relationship between state and religious power, legitimised by imperial naval heroics. The proper ornamental function of monuments is to remind us of things, their iconography intimating mood if not precisely how to behave. This is a necessary aspect of the decorum of architecture in cities: without architecture you have no sense of the history of humanity, everything happens at once, and there is no order to our time. We are simply harried by work and bullied by regimes that deny us the serious pleasure of playfulness and a sense of the ironic and theatrical in our lives.

You don’t need to read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism to see the links between PFI and the destruction of what Mrs Thatcher refused to accept was called ‘Society’. As Piers Gough pointed out when the Scottish Parliament won the Stirling Prize in 2005, a Polaris submarine costs a lot more than a decent seat of national government. Which perhaps illuminates a glitch in national attitudes towards architecture, confusing it with product design; that is, with something designed to become obsolete and disposable. While this might be true for some buildings, public life doesn’t simply disappear because of technical progress. Perhaps this is not just the delusions of the post-war generation high on technology and Oedipal revolt and the thrill of making money: maybe the British just don’t do public life in public, apart from perhaps in the pub?

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