A new approach to hard landscaping may be about to give the bland, uninspiring face of UK streetscape some character. The growth in city cafe culture, costly urban regeneration schemes and the continued pressure of bodies such as CABE are forcing architects and developers to devote some attention to that grey area (and that has been the whole problem) known as the public realm.
CABE has, correctly, made observations that 'the lack of a coherent design and management ethos for looking after streets' is partly to blame for street neglect. But, issues of bureaucracy aside, are product manufacturers offering enough scope for experimentation in design? Concrete manufacturer Marshalls with its new Stein + Design range of block paving and street furniture is certainly having a go. Influenced by the wellcrafted, open spaces of European cities such as Cologne, the Stein + Design range claims to offer 'an exciting palette of colours, textures and finishes'.
Stein + Design, a German-made product, has already been used in projects in Belgium, France and Austria. In its home country, one of Stein + Design's projects involved creating an attractive traffic calming solution on a main road leading to a busy shopping area in Langenfeld. In this instance, Pallas, a simple classical stone available in 12 colours with either a chamfered or square edge, was used.
The local council wanted to avoid traditional 'unsightly' measures such as speed bumps and bollards, preferring to use drivers' uncertainty as to where they can actually drive as a method of slowing traffic. It is an interesting concept - not least because the prospect of driving without road markings would have many of us terrified. And without a very obvious differentiation between road and pavement, the street could have serious implications for the safety of children and the visually impaired. But at the very least, the Langenfeld project is an attractive, progressive attempt to solve one of the problems with the modern streetscape.
The ethos behind Stein + Design's paving products is one of simple design, smooth clean lines and fine textures. The Ravenna system has an interesting rippled surface, irregular broken edges and comes in a Sahara shade in the style of natural-stone coursed paving. At 80mm thick, it is tough enough for use in car parks and open spaces. Il Campo has similar surface properties but comes in a range of colours, including the appealing yellow hue of Jura. The La Linea range, with its choice of slabs, tapered palisades and inlay stones, probably offers the most choice in creating individual striking designs. The stone has a rough textured finish which exposes coloured aggregates. It comes in sizes from 100mm 2inlay stones to 600mm 2blocks, so herringbone and diagonal patterns can be laid without the need for cutting.
In Marshalls' landmark Stein + Design UK project, Allies and Morrison has used more than 2,000m 2of La Linea Grande on the BBC Viva City project at White City, west London. Chris Bennett, landscape architect at Christopher Bradley-Hole, who worked on the project, says he particularly liked La Linea's clean finish. The use of concrete alongside granite made for an interesting textural combination, and using La Linea light stones flecked with black created an impression of 'layering', as if black granite had eroded and other materials had extruded through. With the building itself 'rigorously pursuing the idea of layers', the use of La Linea created 'sympathy between the landscape and surrounding buildings', Bennett said.
But Stein + Design is not just about pretty paving. Four distinct ranges of street furniture - Ovito, Scala, Riva and Avenue - encompass everything from benches to bollards combining heavy-duty concrete in striking geometric shapes with either perforated stainless steel or shot-blasted aluminium in vibrant colours. It is polished, slick, and it all looks rather corporate. But units like the Scala bench with its tough steel and sturdy bevelled edges and Ovito's elliptical concrete planter, look reassuringly vagrant resistant.
Marshalls really is taking the whole thing very seriously. Keen that designers understand exactly how to get the most out of Stein + Design, members of its technical team have been trained in Germany to offer UK designers guidance on individual projects. But the issue of responsibility for implementing this streetscape revolution is a tricky one. The onus seems to be on local authorities to oversee design and work alongside architects and landscape architects in improving the public realm.
Manufacturers may need to consider drawing up contracts whereby they either agree to maintain and replace furniture regularly, a lease furniture to local council schemes, an option that is currently 'under consideration' at Marshalls.
So is the climate right for a wider adoption of Stein + Design in the UK? It will be a long time before any consensus on how best to improve the public realm has the local authorities ripping up our public spaces in a parody of European cities. But overall, the combination of Stein + Design's paving and street furniture makes for an elegant, uncluttered and rather pleasant environment in which to drink your cappuccino.