The Public Realm: Artisans ready to revive

It’s simple: life is complex. It’s so much easier to hand-out contracts for public realm improvements to the big companies. They scramble to get the job done, digging up, blocking off, paying up and somehow valiantly muddling through! There’s so much to do, it can only be this way! There isn’t another way! It’s always been like this! You just have to accept it and move on!

But of course there are hundreds of people ready to help – many of them young and willing to learn, or older and unemployed – just sitting there waiting for the opportunity. Tens of thousands of them.

In our patch, at the Southbank of London, there has been over half a centry of “boss banality”. Waterloo was gutted in the middle of the 20th century – it’s population declined from 80,000 to about 5,000 today. At first the men in suits hid behind rationing and austerity. Then they made use of limited resources.  Then they turned minimalism (soviet/national socialist architecture) into “high culture”, so the elites could keep the cream to themselves in their ugly buildings, away from the ordinary mice. Until we reach the compromise of today, where we involve people by “insulting” them (offering wine, canapes and a free exhibition in return for evidence you attended). Did I say “insulting”, I meant “consulting”. And throwing in some free tickets too!

But still the plan remained, after the public consultation, to put up the barriers, dig up the patch, and roll out a pristine new street scape, or urban park, or world class design with internationally sourced products and technologies. Wow! HOW BRIGHT IT LOOKS ON ITS OPENING NIGHT!

When the corporates have rolled back the red carpet and the dignatories have gone away – what are we left with: more grey on grey, perhaps with a yorkstone or bit of granite tinge. A quick call to the designer for the first repair of the new build within the first week, finds them too busy building a new airport in Honolulu to be able to help with the right size of screw. And very quickly the public space degenerates into a leprous scabby mood. Woe! HOW DULL IT LOOKS ON A CLOUDY DAY!

Boss banality: the endless grey on grey of modern urban vistas, the ubiquity of advertisements, bearing their venal bodies, forcing the public to walk the plank of boredom while being prodded by bright displays of expensive demeaning fashions and gadgets. The public space needs to be dull in order to highlight trash.

Of course, the merest glance at historic public spaces, reminds us that there are hundreds of brilliant ones. Thousands of them. Have you seen the Maydan-i-Shah Mosque in Isfahan, or Istanbul at sunset?

Fishermen in Istanbul

 The Trevi fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza della Signoria, Trafalgar Square, the city centre of Lincoln or Durham or Wells, the Alhambra, Exhibition Road, the Mezquita of Cordoba, the waterfront at Liverpool, the circus at Sevilla, the Taj Mahal,

Do our public spaces have to be: Contract 31428XXB

 the Maritime Museum at Greenwich in the sunrise. There are so many beautiful spaces, we don’t need the limits of those who have a hold on today’s public realm.

So if you want to give people some work, with a purpose beyond producing pieces of paper that are in the bin within a week, here is a way we can help make our public spaces beautiful:

*Don’t just talk about it, do it

*Put detail into the wall, the paving, the fountain

*Create a place for people to rest and sit and watch the world pass by

*Link a place to its roots: by putting images of its history or the people who have lived there

*Link a place to roots: by planting flowers and orchards

*Use characters, both from the past to inspire us and recognise the talent and ability of those beside us now

*Invest in learning, training, designing and making things of exquisite quality, durability and beauty

*Put aside the vanity of parachuting in distant megastars to deliver empty promises

*Promote the learning and skills of our youth

There’s so much to do. Let’s get on with it.

In England (and other places with a history of ex-patriate potentates) there is this odd tradition, probably linked to having foreign rulers slightly scared of the confidence of the native stock, of always putting down home grown talent. It’s an imperial thing as well – why choose Abdul Newraz from up the road, when you can buy in Godalmightymakerofheavenandearth from Best-ville-on-Everest.  Many places do this, they ignore their own talent to patronise something exotic, whom you can simply pay and don’t have to talk to.

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