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We should look to Copenhagen’s subtle streets as a model for public realm design

Black Box: How did contemporary public realm design succumb to an overly self-conscious aesthetic?

Some call it the Granite Bench Syndrome. You might be walking along an average city street and then, WHAM! - it biffs between the eyes: a slice of public realm, with granite flagstones and stone benches, and some metallic embellishments in brass or Corten steel.

Despite the hard work spent making these spaces appear deliberate and designed for public use, they rarely look inviting. ‘Use me’ the soaring light masts, metal grates and blades of scruffy long grass seem to plead. ‘Have your Pret sandwich here.’

So how did contemporary public realm design succumb to this overly self-conscious aesthetic? When I was a kid we called these kinds of spaces the ‘pedestrianised bit’. Just having no cars in the way was enough of a gesture. But then came Barcelona and its 100-plus public realm projects completed in the 80s and 90s.

They showed that architectural design could be applied to the spaces between buildings too. (Maybe not coincidentally, this happened around about the same time architects were muscled off site, with control of building projects wrested away by project managers, quantity surveyors and contractors.)

Even RIBA was smitten, awarding the city the Gold Medal in 1999 largely for its contributions to the field of public realm design. Hatched brick paving or a closed-off road with Tarmac and kerbs still in place, just wouldn’t do anymore. The likes of CABE and Design for London would go on to spread the message. As the latter’s boss Mark Brearley told Monocle magazine recently, ‘nurturing the vibrancy of more than 600 high street places’ is what DfL is ‘up to’.

The problem lies with architects that seek to fetishise the street, giving every element on it a bespoke focus, overplaying thresholds and drawing too vigorously from graphic design (see the space outside City Hall, left). Sometimes, having space that eases connectivity really is good enough.

Copenhagen is a great example, and a far better model for British cities than Barcelona ever was. The space around many of the Danish capital’s buildings are barely detailed, with just cobbles and kerbstones or embossed tiles at best. They might seem rather underdone compared with Exhibition Road, say, which seeks to make you aware it is designed, but they enhance the surrounding facades equally well.

We all know this. But when you have documents like CABE’s 2009 manifesto World Class Places, which only further served to put pressure on public realm design to be truly special, still driving the mechanics of this very fuzzy sector, it’s worth restating and asking: does the public realm always have to be so screamingly obvious?

Inbox

Campus

Last week, Black box questioned the Google method of office design.

This week Inbox presents the 2,300m2 Google Campus, a co-working and event space designed by Jump Studios in the centre of London’s Tech City in Shoreditch, known as Silicon Roundabout. The £2.2 million project, run by Google UK, aims to fuel the success of London’s tech start-up community.

A press release reads: ‘The design challenge was to take an unprepossessing seven-storey office building and create an interplay between dynamic, open, social spaces and more intimate working hubs.’

One cynical commentator on Dezeen’s website was unconvinced about the project: ‘Are designers and companies really so naive that they think slapping some lego on a desk will bring back the start-up days?’

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