'All true wisdom is to be found far from the dwellings of man in the great solitudes and it can only be attained through suffering.
Suffering and privation are the only things that can open the mind to that which is hidden from his fellows.'
Igjugarjuk, a Caribou Eskimo,1922
The idea of 'great solitudes'conjures up marvellous images in the mind, of places far flung with the magnificence of nature creating a stark contrast to the urban dwellers'daily experience. Now that city dwellers are in the majority, and as we are in the middle of high-profile holiday destination advertising campaigns, the idea of solitude is represented as the unique selling point of many locations. The irony is that, when this 'great solitude' is advertised, it means it can be reached easily and en masse, thereby undermining its own USP. The Eskimo's pronouncement, if true, would also suggest that anything man-made would make solitude unobtainable.
Today, this type of solitude is a privilege and available only to the intrepid and often the wealthy. If we think that places to be alone are important, how do we create them?
The current round of urban conversations is based on the public realm - streets, squares, boulevards, piazzas and avenues. A simple string of names that are familiar and belong to a tradition of cities from the medieval through the Renaissance to the New Towns of the '50s and '60s. Inherent within these themes is a plan of city blocks, corners and edges that tend to determine the nature of the plan.
These words are not the starting point for the urban designer's work. If part of the brief includes places of urban solitude, we find that these names all presuppose that they are places that attract people in numbers, in order to conform to the current maxim of creating 'people places'. Although these are important, they are not the whole picture.
Anyway, the famous Renaissance image of the ideal city illustrates a composition of dignity, proportion and place which, to my mind, looks completely sterile and certainly not 'ideal' for me. It has the antiseptic quality of Switzerland - high quality but low life. Many of Leon Krier's precise drawings depicted such spaces, which suggest a type of behaviour that is thought of as being good for you. It is a prescription for health, but a type of imagined health that belongs to a romantic view of history.
Places of solitude for reflection and contemplation are but one of a number of possible briefs for the urban designer. I would suggest that an interpretation of the word Urban Salon might be very interesting. I am always amazed to see the important and rather beautiful space that was created, almost instantly, at the beginning of the film Ran, where a silk wall was created enclosing a rectilinear form, thereby delineating a picnic space for a hunting party; a single device to make a place for the act of entry. Why not a space of permanent darkness, or indeed a place of eternal light?
Our towns should be full of smoking rooms, public laundries and sitting rooms equipped with all the accoutrements you would find at home. In fact, we suffer a terrible lack of places to sit and do nothing.There should be running rooms, test rooms and flower-arranging rooms, and our cities should be equipped with spaces and things to encourage as many types of behaviour as possible.
If Urban Catalyst, Urban Initiatives and Urban Splash all got together into Urbed, some of these missing elements might emerge.
WA, from the kitchen table