All Together Now
The built environment can be experienced in many different ways, part of it’s diversity is the very fact that people see and use it in different ways. A child will see opportunity for play in a puddle or under a park bench differently to a pensioner. Some may see a bridge as a means by which water is crossed, others may view it as a diving platform. A low wall may denote a boundary or a seating area, a roof top a rain shield or a parkour playground.
Having preached, and indeed practiced, this kind of thing during my youth with no particular understanding of the overall context and without any specific agenda, it was a bizarre irony that during one of my first forays into the world of professional practice I was enlisted to counter just this kind of behaviour.
Dixon Jones Architects had, the year prior to my arrival, inadvertently designed a perfect skatepark in the entrance forecourt of their Said Business School in Oxford. Such was the exceptional nature of this new spot in terms of rails, ledges, steps and paving surfaces that I was already aware of it as a destination for skateboarders.
My task involved visiting the building, examining the ‘problem’ and suggesting possible design solutions to counter this ‘anti social’ behaviour. As I was an active skateboarder at the time I concluded that the only reasonable and thoroughgoing way of assessing the situation was to take by board and try it out.
Rarely have I seen a greater mix of confused and bewildered emotions as on the faces of the open mouthed Oxford University reception staff, staring with disbelief at the audacity of a grubby little oik who, having just ground their pristine granite ledge in the middle of the day, was strolling straight into the main reception and asking in his best RP to speak to the head of school.
Following an initial period of hostility the head, although understanding of my arguments against the need for preventative measures, concluded that something must be done. The betrayal I felt at my honest suggestion of effective measures stings to this day.
To presume that if one activity goes on in a given public urban space it precludes another is an absurd false dichotomy. Why must we choose? Why may we not have both? Should the richness and variety of the human cultural jungle not be represented in the human urban jungle? Some may give greater value to a young family playing in a water fountain than a BMX rider perfecting his skills but surely we can agree that the habitat is all the better for being able to sustain each. To disagree with such a statement, to my mind, is to promote monocultures which are uninhabitably arid and result in deserts.
It is of course well recognized that the rich patina of life which the naturally evolving ancient cities embody cannot be artificially recreated. I’m sure I may have mentioned this seminal text previously but nowhere is this more compellingly illustrated than in Christopher Alexander’s A City is not a Tree. I can’t help thinking, however, that a slightly more relaxed attitude towards prescriptive prohibition of specific activities might be a good place to start.
The well intentioned ‘shared surface’ as defined in many local authorities policy driven agenda could become so much more than an opportunity to be run over on a boundaryless, non-slip surface. This is perhaps a little unfair as I do commend the sentiment and have been very pleased to see recent examples such as the allowance of bikes mixing with promenaders on Tankerton seafront.
The very best example however is the endorsement made by Malsbury Abby’s Rev Neill Archer in recognition of this propensity for alternative use. The 12th century former Benedictine abbey has been transformed for various 21st century events over the past five years. This year the whole place was turned into a skatepark, the idea being to; ‘connect with the town’s young people, and show that the abbey building and its church is as much for them as everyone else.’ Amen.
I may just see how ‘dropping in’ off the lectern is viewed by the Archdeacon this Sunday.
See also on BD Online: