During the years after the era in which Modernism was discredited, various theories of place - ‘place not space’(Aldo van Eyck in Team 10 Primer) - identified the street as having an importance that required recognition in design, in architecture, in urban planning and in town planning. The ‘feeling in the air’ pervaded all areas involved in design and planning. Publications across all these fields reflected a core concern with the street as public place. The concept of these areas as being ‘a location for community’ and ‘defensible space’ were two of the catchcries of this period. Various matters relating to the street, from its general appearance, scale and character, to personal security were all highlighted as something to be carefully considered in all design. Context gained a new significance in Regionalism that mocked the arrogant, careless but stylish individuality of Modernism. It was argued that the street must be respected as a place in its own right rather than merely being some functional driveway or a useful interconnection.
These theories, that have the sense of a fashion in thought with their rise into popularity and equally dramatic fall from grace - or was it merely the neglect of distraction? - led to other specific considerations in design that went right down to the detail with questions that asked whether places should have fences or balustrades, and what style and materials might be best used for these enclosures. Thinking on this scale of community/personal interaction in any design appears to have been passed over for other matters that have their roots in the more intimate considerations of technological possibilities and designers’ egos that attend to larger scale identities of form. But did the theory on the street hold any substance other than some interesting concerns that concentrated research and academic debate for a couple of years? Was it merely a fad?
When working on a small public housing project some years ago, the client’s urban planner adviser insisted on the detailing of the front courtyard walls and the balustrades being changed. Both had been made solid to screen private spaces: the front walls were constructed from concrete block; the balustrades were built from insitu concrete. Being located on a very narrow, densely developed old street, the idea for this small, multi-storied block was to provide some privacy for each one-bedroom unit both at ground level and above. One too often sees the ad hoc, shantytown attempts at creating some seclusion where glass balustrades and open fencing have been used in a design that opens up the private living areas and balcony spaces for all to see. Public supervision of intimate lives is never popular unless it is a television show.
The edict came: these elements had to be changed to provide some relationship to the street. This was the current theory. The argument for simple, personal privacy for each unit was put, but was pushed aside as being irrelevant. The current theory demanded that ‘the street’ be addressed. So holes were opened up in the block walls, and the concrete balustrades were replaced with steel frames fabricated from angles in order to give some visual screening for passersby and occupants. This solution was accepted by the urban planner who gave no thought to how anyone might choose to live simply and comfortably in these tiny spaces.
On another project many years ago, I had been asked to design a new enclosure for a large educational site in order to define its limits, its identity, in the midst of various sundry commercial developments, and to provide some security for the whole precinct. The brief was that the site had to be able to be locked up after hours. So an enclosure was themed and detailed to relate to each portion of the precinct. New bold directional graphics were designed to mark the entrances. Some years later, the urban planner, (the same one), criticised this enclosure, arguing that it separated the site from the public. Indeed, this was exactly the brief; but theories had changed. Educational sites were now seen as open, ‘friendly’ community places that encouraged folk to enter, to participate. They were now considered a part of the civic space of a city. The urban planner could not understand the original brief and merely noted the project as a misguided example of architectural design, a failure in planning.
Some years later the fence and its graphics were all removed. The site now stands as an amorphous development in amongst the commercial blurb of this area without any clarity of location or entrance. One has to guess the limits of the precinct and the ways into the smart new buildings that stand in open grassland space, areas that were once intimate enclosed open community areas surrounded by the lower, older buildings. The change in planning philosophies came with a change in the concept of making places for people. The greater importance was now centred on establishing a place, a foreground for looking at MY slick buildings rather than in the provision of a pleasant, open recreational area for students.
What role might the street play today? Have ideas about this space become just parts of an old theory that has been surpassed by more advanced critical thinking? Or have fashions changed? How is the street viewed today? The arguments for the importance of context in Regionalsim still linger, and are used when one is seeking an excuse to achieve something quaint and different; but it holds little significance as a driving force in any field. The street is the last thing anyone appears to be concerned about. Even town planners seem happy to look at the broad issues of a project and listen to the arguments of others seeking certain outcomes for their development, with a favourable and adaptable attitude. The street is whatever it becomes. It is the leftover space for others to look after. Project budgets, it seems, are best spent on buildings, not streets. So does anyone design the street as a place for people? It appears not, because traffic engineers design thoroughfares for vehicles to their road standards and in strict accordance with their manuals of typical details irrespective of location. Pedestrians are objectified as numbers of ‘peds’ rather than thinking, feeling individuals. Between the designs for buildings and the prescribed designs for the thoroughfares, people get what’s left. Generally this is the meagre concrete footpath cluttered with signs, trash and poles propping wires and poor lighting.
Is the street really that important? Surely our era must have understood that it had moved on from the ‘old’ thinking into something more critical and significant; more inclusive? Or has it just moved on thoughtlessly? Surely not! The street is an interesting concept. We all like to believe that we are dwelling on earth in a certain country and in a particular city, town or village, in a small, private portion of this settlement. We hold nationality with some degree of pride. We are frequently said to ‘love our country.’ A whole range of clichés has arisen to include our experience of a homeland in our literature and stories. We go to war for our country. But how do we relate to our place of birth or adoption? How do we dwell in place; move about it? What is our home, our homeland? What is this experience?
A location and an intimacy can be envisaged and recollected in complete detail as a home, when it is the place that one lives in. Beyond that we appear to project our experience of ‘home’ onto all other place and places that grow to include the whole country – our ‘home’ land. But how can I experience this land and landscape? Am I really free to be able to ‘dwell’ in it as the nationalistic songs suggest? I own or rent personal space in a country and am free within the rules of a country to do what I like whenever, however in this location. When I open my front door, I step out over a threshold or onto a front path into the street. From this street I am free, within the rules of general access and behaviour, to move along any other dedicated, connected street, lane, public path or track to go wherever these paths might lead. I learn these routes and discover others from time to time, but I am limited to the ‘street.’ Here I am using ‘the street’ as the general term to reference all public ways. If I choose to drive, I can do likewise: I get into my car and drive along the roads designated for vehicular traffic. I am free, within the rules of the road, to go wherever these connected driveways can take me. So it is that satellite navigation systems are able to plan trips for me by plotting particular routes out of a nationwide network of possibilities. It becomes a mathematical problem with clearly defined solutions. This is where I can go – anywhere on the system of roads of varying scales. I have no rights to access 'private roads.'
But where does one go, whether one be on a street either walking or driving, or indeed on public transport? One is always locked into the system of paths. The choices to go off these are extremely limited. Our country, our homeland, our much-loved place for dwelling, is merely a network of access. Beyond that one is not free to go anywhere other than onto places designated as being for public access, with specific rules for this access; places that exist to do business or commerce with the public and encourage the public to browse, beg or borrow; and places that one can enter by paying, by special agreement, or by invitation. Otherwise one is limited by rules of privacy and trespass to the street marked by defined boundaries. Our sense of open freedom is a fantasy; a hopeful vision that we have been sold. Our mobility and access are extremely limited. The street is all we have – its access and its appearance. We know place by streets: see – http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/04/streets.html Our country is a street. Our landscape is available to us only from the street as it passes through; our cities are as seen from streets, experienced as streets. We have street vision only.
When exploring the Mappy site seeking directions in Europe, I decided to test it by asking for directions from one place in the south of a remote island to a location in the north of this same small island that measures about six by twelve miles. The response came back quickly and clearly: ‘Same road.’ On a larger scale we can say that any country is one street; well, one network of streets: the same road everywhere. We do have choices in our movements around the country, but these are limited to ‘the street,’ whether we are walking, driving or enjoying public transport, be this within the city or between them. It is really not an open choice, just options within the confines of a system, like parlour games are. Ours is a linear living with rules, like Snakes and Ladders, that not only keep us on the narrow road, but also manage how we can move along these lines: ‘the streets.’ It is our egocentricity that allows us to indulge ourselves with perceptions of things being otherwise. We envisage a rich and varied experience by reaching out from these streets to include everything beyond the street as a part of ourselves: but we stay street-framed; street-limited. In the same way as we like to transpose feeling into the ‘character’ of, say, a door, as one of its inherent properties, instead of claiming any private, individual perception/reference to a particular individual’s experience of the door, we rationalise matters relating to place by transposing our general experience into a broad vision of being, a myth – that of being free, at home in our homeland, our country, where we locate meaning.
When thinking about streets and old theories on these thoroughfares, one comes to the understanding of a new importance of street as place in the experience of everywhere. If ‘streets,’ to use a generic name for paths, lanes, highways, etc., are all we have to experience the whole of a country, then we need to give them much more attention. They can be seen to be the threads of community as well as the screens for the experience of place – country, city, town, village and home. Our home and those other places that we are allowed to access are as aneurisms in a biological being – swellings that allow one to move off the narrow path into somewhere else and to pause. These all have a unique hierarchy with differences that change our perception of being and offer us the diversity that we consider to be ourselves: our experiences make us. Entering a courthouse is different to entering a cinema; entering a narrow lane is different to walking on a beach or in a park. The hub of existence is spun with threads that intermesh and connect, as beads, gems and knots on a string web that allows us to act; to achieve our ambitions; or just do nothing: to be. Streets are critical for our being. So how should we consider these places, this network?
The concern is that if streets are all we have, then we can be limited by them and their presence: their design. What is a street? This element can be seen in two ways: as a space designed for thoroughfare and as a precinct made by the structures around it. The coming together of these two aspects of its identity creates the tensions in how we think about streets. The traffic engineer has one view, but it is the passersby who take with them the immediacy of its appearance and character: it is the place I am in. Visit a new city, town or village and it is the street that remains the primary and singular image of place, how it is first sensed, experienced, assessed. We learn through streets. This is the street’s importance. Likewise, any countryside is seen from the street and is likewise recalled from this aspect. We are street people: we know street place. The street is a critical issue in any design; any plan; any understanding of possibility, for it is from the street that one knows everything. We are introduced to the world from streets. Home is a street.
So what is our responsibility for the street? It is indeed paramount. Every consideration given to any project needs to give thought to the street. Buildings make streets just as streets make buildings. If we continue to consider nothing but the our own design and its unique integrity to itself and its special expressive intention, then the street will become a concrete thoroughfare slicing through a series of ‘masterpieces’ each declaring its own identity in its own language, making private, but exclamatory claims for supremacy. This is today’s city, town and village. Once streets, whether by chance or thoughtful planning, were formed organically by the making of the road and the designing and placement of the buildings. The streets in the small town of Gulgong in New South Wales, Australia come to mind. These meander beautifully to an intersection that is defined by buildings that reach around corners with manners and respect for each other. Once beyond this old centre, the street disintegrates into an ill-defined, scattered strip that fades away to a speedy ribbon traversing the countryside.
Gulgong, New South Wales
If there is one issue that can be isolated, it is the lack of manners in today’s architecture, the lack of concern for any neighbour or user. Trystan Edwards wrote about architectural manners in Good and Bad Manners in Architecture, a book published by J. Tiranti, Ltd., London, in 1944. It is a publication that is now considered laughably quaint, irrelevant. Little does the profession realise how critical this notion is. How, like the issues raised Howard Robertson’s book, The Principles of Architectural Composition, published by The Architectural Press, London, in 1924, issues like proportion, scale, etc. are matters that remain important even though we consider the publication and its contents ‘just so-o-o-o old fashioned,’ merely out-of-date rubbish to be ignored. If we are to understand how streets need to be formed and how they can be rich and vital parts of our cities, towns and villages, then we need to swallow our arrogant pride and learn about these ‘old’ things. Then we might have an architecture, urban planning and town planning that are not at loggerheads, capable of co-operating to create a vibrant place that can live rather than remain a connecting no-man’s-land conduit full of pollution, smells and noise.
This is our challenge: to rediscover how to design streets when we design everything else; how to create public place organically, interactively, whether these places be highways - we must never forget the primacy of landscape in our work - streets, lanes, or paths. Then, with this more responsive and responsible approach to our environment, a less competitive situation where difference is not the defining ambition of everyone involved, (see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/02/camp-architecture.html) - that struggle to create a signature effort to win awards – we will hopefully also come to understand how we can bring the same approach to everything we do: where we care for all and everyone, and every detail, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, for this is how great streets are made. Streets are our home. We are all street people and need to remember this in everything we do. We specialise and centralise our expertise and forget the street at our own risk. We all need to become street designers. We should remember that streets are buildings; and buildings are streets. Selfies will always only remain selfies cluttered around a disregarded void, no matter how ‘new,’ smart or clever these indulgences might be. It is a situation that we can see everywhere we go today. We need better than this if we are to create enriching environments that we can truly love.
Christopher Alexander’s writings are interesting in this search for a broader responsibility and understanding in architecture and planning:
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Oxford, 1977.
The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe, Center for Environmental Structure, 2003- 2004.
We are literally 'streets apart.'
23 December 2016
Patterns of public spaces, the streets of our cities and their waterways:
New map reveals shattering effect of roads on nature -