Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Private Realm

Will Wiles' review of 'Ground Control' by Anna Minton, and his recent blog post on the subject (see links below), got me thinking about public realm in a way that I hadn't necessarily considered before.

The abiding theme of both articles is how new areas of 'public realm' are springing up in Britain's cities under the auspices of regeneration, but are in fact privately owned and managed. Many of these have restrictions for individuals, such as a ban on leafletting, which would not be possible in public owned space. The articles make a good case for how this is eroding our basic civil liberties.

You see, up until this point, I'd been thinking that public space that was not managed by a local authority was an entirely good thing...

Designing public realm is the thing that get's me out of bed in the morning - parks, plazas, streets, squares and shared space is what really interests me. I'm also passionate about regeneration; and if you ask me the way to get regeneration happening from the bottom up, then I'd suggest you start with our public spaces. Buildings by their very nature are never as inclusive as our civic spaces. The public realm is for everyone, and improvements to it demonstrate investment in a community, and that you value the people within it.

However, there has traditionally been a lack of recognition for the importance of public space. Most people I speak to seem surprised to hear that
any design is involved in the built environment, outside of buildings or gardens and I suspect many more regard it's design in similar terms to their daily bin collection - it just happens (I could quite happily start off on another 'landscaping' rant here). However, things are improving, and it seems to me that private developers in particular, have cottoned onto the value that a well designed public space can bring to their developments.

Sadly, it seems to me that there are a lot of people working for local authorities who aren't as enlightened, which brings me onto the absolute bane of my working life - 'adoption'. Not unreasonably, if you want a local authority to maintain a space, you have to agree certain standards. However, in practice if you are proposing anything more than grass and tarmac, you are often in for a difficult ride. I expect to get some stick from local authority officers, but I have simply lost count of schemes that I have seen diminished by adoption issues (I'm not going to go into commuted sums). There are many excellent and forward thinking people working for local authorities, but it often only takes one saying 'no' to scupper a proposal. While I think certain departments have a culture of saying no, the real problem is that many officers will constrain proposals by what is current in terms of maintenance. This makes it nigh on impossible to do anything new or make significant improvements to an environment.

As something of an aside, whilst reading the original book review, I was wrestling with something of a lighting adoption issue. While I have a good relationship with the local authority in question, they have one of those new-fangled PFI lighting contracts, where you have to ask a particular supplier to design your street lighting. The quality of the actual lights is piss poor, and it is nigh-on impossible to get them to adjust the design to co-ordinate with the rest of the scheme. Interestingly, there are also moves to have street lighting turn off at a certain time, as research has apparently shown that it can reduce anti-social behaviour (and saves stacks of cash too ,I'd imagine). I bet the muggers and rapists are rubbing their hands in anticipation...

Back on topic, once you have a scheme adopted, the other big problem of public spaces is maintenance. There is simply never enough cash devoted by local authorities for adequately maintaining public spaces. I noted this in a recent blog post about Port Marine in Bristol, but this is by no means an especially bad example. As I said in that post, on the back of showing a client around this scheme, they decided to not to put their regeneration scheme up for public adoption. In order to ensure the long term maintenance, the intention is to set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) which will look after all parks, footpaths, public squares and spaces. While I believe the developers intentions are basically good (they just want to ensure their investment is maintained), it is clearly the beginning of gated communities.

In conclusion, while I am troubled by public spaces being removed from public ownership, it seems a logical response to the current situation. Although I don't believe wseeing any significant curbs on civil liberties at the moment, it would not require a great change of direction for that to happen (for example, banning groups of young people congregating). However, my abiding feeling is that until there is wider acknowledgement of the value of our public spaces, they will continue to fall into private ownership. I think we'll miss them when they're gone.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Alnwick Garden

It’s a couple of months since I visited The Alnwick Garden, but I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.

I suppose I should start by saying that I had absolutely no preconceptions about the Garden, and if we’d had better weather for our week in Northumberland, I might not have bothered going to see it. However, while the rest of the country was sweltering in 30 degree heat, the north-east was sitting under a thick layer of clouds and steady rain, and I was steadily working my way round the regions tourist attractions. As I love castles, one of the first places I visited was Alnwick Castle and as I had nothing better to do, took them up on their offer of a joint ticket to the Castle and Garden.

The first thing you see as you come into the garden is the gigantic, wibbly-wobbly cascade fountain, that appears to have been inspired by a jelly mould. I found it generally displeasing to the eye, and I was also slightly puzzled by what the frenzy of activity around the base of it was. On closer inspection, I realised that these were kids riding around in mini John Deere tractors (I didn’t take any pictures on account of not wanting to be arrested as a paedo). For the life of me, I can’t work out what these two things have to do with each other, and I think this sums up the whole Garden. It’s a series of wacky, “wouldn’t it be fun to have one of those”, that have absolutely no connection or relevance to each other. The Eden Project was obviously the role model for the Alnwick Garden, but whereas the Eden Project has an overarching philosophy of sustainability, hugging trees and generally appreciating the natural world , the Alnwick Garden is just a bunch of unrelated stuff.

Some of that stuff is actually very fun and inventive, other bits less so. As a landscape architect, and something of a pseud, I have a bit of a problem with the whole design. It feels rather alien, as if somehow it’s been beamed into place, with rows of immaculate, specimen grown trees and topiary - it‘s not awful, but it’s all rather contrived. There is no sense of Northumberland about the Garden, and little of the British Isles. The giveaway is the surfacing, which is a side-laid clay paver that I’ve only ever seen used before in Belgium (yes I know I‘m being spoddy). No surprise then that the designers, Jacques and Peter Wirtz, are Belgian. I can’t help wonder how the garden would have turned out, had it been designed by someone with more understanding of the areas landscape and gardens.

That said, if the brief was to create the most flamboyant garden possible, then the Wirtz boys have had a fair crack. It is without doubt the campest garden I’ve ever visited. You want examples? Well apart from all the fountains and other froo-froo, the backdrop to the main cascade is provided by what I can only be describe as giant, topiary birdcages!

Which kind of brings me onto my second major gripe with the gardens - cost. According to the bumf you get with your ticket, the cost of the garden was £42 million and I can well believe this. Everything looks seriously expensive, from the very tasteful Sir Michael Hopkins visitor centre, to the stacks and stacks of specially grown trees. The worst offender by far though, is the aforementioned topiary birdgcages, which must have been astronomically expensive. They’ve been formed by training hundreds and hundreds of specially grown hornbeam trees (minimum cost £200 each I’d suggest) over a giant pergola, to create… actually I don’t know what they were meant to create. There’s not an awful lot going on inside them at all, as I think my photo’s show. My point is that if you’re going to spunk a shed-load of cash on something, I think that it really ought to have some sort of purpose (as it happens I found them reminiscent of the Hiroshima dome). Similarly, someone should have reminded the person that ‘designed’ the Cherry Orchard, that simply specifying hundreds of the most expensive trees you can find, won’t necessarily give you the best result.

Ok ok, I’m being really critical and in fairness most of the punters I saw seemed to be really enjoying themselves. There is lots that good…

The liberal use of water features is pretty cool. I know it’s easy for designers to get a bit sniffy about this, but the public loves a good fountain, and the Alnwick Garden certainly delivers them. There are big water features, like the main cascade, but the little riffling channels that run through the gardens are a really nice touch. I particularly liked the circular pools, which sit behind my favourite giant topiary things.

The visitor centre is very pleasant, and serves nice sandwiches in a setting that’s reminiscent of the Eden Project. Oh and the loos are amusing too, with different coloured led’s for you to aim at.

The Poison Garden is a fun idea (yes a garden full of mildly to moderately poisonous plants, located behind big gates marked with a skull and cross bones), if only one suicidal teenager away from disaster! I can see the Daily Mail headline already.

The formal gardens located in an old walled area, are nicely laid out around a structure of fountains and channels. At present the perennial planting is a bit disappointing, but hopefully they can develop this with time.(p.s. The rose gardens are a bit dull)

In particular, I thought the Bamboo Labyrinth was inspired. Mazes are fun anyway, but the use of bamboo made for a really dense and atmospheric screen.

Finally, I probably ought to mention the water features again, because if you’re under the age of 12 you’re going to love them. The Serpent Garden has a whole bunch of fountains, and the excitement levels of the children is something I’ve not seen since they took the tartrazine out of orange squash.

You see there’s so much that’s fun and positive in the Garden, that I could almost forgive it. And then…

I see the Treehouse.

What in God’s name made them build this monstrosity? Not in Walt Disney’s wildest dreams could he have come up with this. It’s beyond kitsch, beyond fairy’s down the bottom of the garden with Harry Potter - it’s quite unbelievably tacky, twee and hideous. Who is it for? No really, it may look like something that you’d use to decorate a particularly saccharine, 6 year old girls bedroom, but it actually contains a ‘fine dining restaurant’. Who in there right mind thought these two things could go together? I suspect there’s a reason why Gordon Ramsey hasn’t installed an adventure playground at Claridges.

Well there you go, that’s my take on the Alnwick Garden. It saddens me to be so critical, because the idea of building a new contemporary Garden is one I’d support. You certainly can’t criticise the investment, but the taste, or lack of, is at times rather obvious. There's lots that's good about the Garden and it is in many ways so nearly right, but certain elements seemed to be something of vanity project. Whether this was from the designers or the Duchess patron I don’t know, but someone should have said that certain things just aren‘t right - like putting a classy restaurant in a Disneyfied, treehouse is never going to work. I’ll be really interested to see how the Garden develops, but my advice is that if you want to visit a brilliant, contemporary garden in Britain - go to the Eden Project first.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Ashford Ring Road, Shared Space

Whenever we hear about the rights and wrongs of shared space being debated in the media, one scheme seems to be mentioned more than others – the Ashford ring road. Jeremy Clarkson hates it, I suspect Guide Dogs for the Blind aren’t too keen and local residents have complained that someone will surely be killed! I thought it was worth checking out…

Geek that I am, I actually arranged to spend the night in Ashford before I headed off to France for my hols the following day. Unfortunately, traffic and the British weather conspired against me and I ended up arriving in Ashford at about half past nine, on a dark and rainy night. As a result I didn’t get any decent photo’s (and hence why I’ve included a few from around the interweb) and I probably missed a few of the schemes intricacies.

It’s an interesting design, and perhaps not quite as radical as I’d imagined it to be. The thought of making a ring road a shared space, conjured up images of pedestrians trying to get across a dual carriageway. In reality it’s not quite as dramatic as this, and it’s pretty much a standard stretch of urban road that’s been given the shared space treatment. That said, Ashford have gone for the full shared space package – no kerbs and some big spaces where cars and pedestrians can intermingle. Personally, I think you can achieve a lot whilst still having some small kerbs and I’m not convinced that big spaces with cars and pedestrians mixing, are necessarily the best idea.

However, I’d imagine that on a nice day it’s an attractive scheme with lots of new street trees, and I particularly liked the look of some of the hard detailing. However the biggest surprise for me is the abundance of some seriously wacky public art. One of the key concepts of shared space is that by making drivers feel unsure and even uncomfortable, you reduce their speed and ensure that they behave with more consideration for other road users. Hence, I can understand the rationale for incorporating some art features. However, I think that there is also a danger that you will also make pedestrians also feel uncomfortable, by including so many seemingly incomprehensible features. I’m just not sure that the combination of rather frivolous art, and a pretty serious change in road safety policy, is a great idea. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence and I’m not particularly surprised that so many local users have been baffled by the whole thing. I would also imagine that it rather reinforces the idea that the Council have ‘gone mad’.

The worst offender by far, is the ‘Notaroundabout’ installation (not a round about, how clever). The image below was emailed to me with just two accompanying words. Utter tosh. It looks to me like someone’s buried a rusting, miniature observatory in a giant, patio recreation of a Moorish garden.

Despite all of I’ve said, I’d still be interested to visit the scheme again – ideally in daylight. It’s a bit of an ongoing experiment really; some things have worked, others haven’t. But for anyone interested in public realm and shared space, it is fascinating. I’d also really like to hear from other people who’ve visited and experienced the scheme.